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All Eyes on Duque as Santos Fails to Clinch ELN Peace Deal

Grace Lee | Country Analyst

Last week, delegates from the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) walked away empty-handed from the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba, after the sixth round of peace talks, dashing President Juan Manuel Santos’s hopes of finalizing a peace deal with the guerrilla group before his successor Iván Duque steps into power on August 7.

Founded as a Marxist-Leninist nationalist movement in the 1960s, the ELN continues to pose a threat to Colombian national security and economic development through kidnapping, extortion of local and foreign companies, illegal mining, narcotrafficking, and attacks on infrastructure. The ELN is most active in the rural areas of departments (subnational divisions) like Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, especially in the Catatumbo subregion.

In the Catatumbo area, which is abundant in oil and favorable for coca cultivation, violence perpetrated by the ELN is only intensifying. On July 30, there was a massacre in broad daylight that killed ten in the town of El Tarra, Norte de Santander. The ELN and another guerrilla group present in the Catatumbo, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), are suspected of involvement and locals have remarked that they have not witnessed anything like this in their town in the past couple decades. The incident could reflect a territorial expansion or a shift in the power dynamic between the ELN and EPL.

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The situation in Norte de Santander is exacerbated further by the department’s proximity to Venezuela, from which more than one million migrants have fled to Colombia in the last 18 months. Most of the migrants flow in through the department’s capital, Cúcuta, which serves as an important cross-border economic hub. Likewise, this border city connects the ELN to Venezuela, where the group has been ramping up activity. There have even been reports of Venezuelans joining ELN ranks, and Cúcuta could increasingly become a recruiting ground for the ELN to exploit desperate and impoverished migrants. While the World Bank’s Doing Business in Colombia 2017 report ranked Cúcuta as the sixth best city for business, foreign companies should also consider the security risks of operating there.

To attract more foreign investment to Colombia, President-elect Duque has a complex set of tasks ahead of him, and a large part of this is ensuring better domestic security. Colombia needs to finalize the peace deal with the ELN, but the President-elect has threatened to end peace talks if the ELN does not completely suspend all activities and agree to government monitoring. Even if Duque comes to an agreement with the ELN, the group is so fractured that violence and criminal activity may still persist along the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela. Duque will need to work with his neighbors to secure the borders, while simultaneously dealing with the migrant crisis from Venezuela. As Duque settles into the presidency, groundTruth Global will closely monitor the developments in Colombia to provide our clients with the most up-to-date risk information.