WHEN the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s strongest guerrilla group, wanted to convince the government that they were serious about restarting peace talks, they tried to prove their good intentions by formally renouncing their decades-old practice of kidnapping for ransom. They also declared a unilateral two-month ceasefire when the talks began, which expired on January 20th. The country’s second-largest guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has adopted the opposite strategy: disgruntled that it has been excluded from the negotiations, which began in November, it has launched a new campaign of attacks to establish its relevance.
On January 18th the ELN abducted five workers for Canada’s Braeval Mining Corporation near the company’s gold and silver mining project in the department of Bolívar. The captives included a Canadian and two Peruvians. The group has also bombed an oil pipeline twice so far in 2013.
The ELN has left little doubt that the attacks are a cry for attention. “Why aren’t we at the [negotiating] table?,” asked Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, its leader, in a video posted online the day the miners were kidnapped. “That’s a question for President [Juan Manuel] Santos,” he continued.
Since the mid-1960s, the ELN and FARC have fought parallel wars against the Colombian state. Although both groups espouse a Marxist ideology and have financed themselves through kidnappings and the drug trade, they have a long history of mutual mistrust. Whereas the FARC began as a peasant-based organisation and adopted Soviet-style doctrines and a strict military structure, the ELN was founded by university students, oil workers and priests who followed liberation theology and had close ties to Cuba. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Colombian army commanders and ELN leaders actually agreed in 2006 to fight the FARC together in some parts of the country.
Mr Santos has been careful not to give the ELN the public recognition it craves. According to El Colombiano, a newspaper in Medellín, the ELN sent a delegation to the peace talks, but it was turned away because the state’s representatives were not authorised to talk with it. Although the government has not ruled out parallel discussions, it worries that the narrow five-point agenda it has agreed to address with the FARC—aimed mostly at ending the country’s armed conflict—could be diluted by the ELN’s long-standing demand for a broad national convention about all the country’s woes. Moreover, many officials hope they can simply fold the ELN, which has just 2,500 fighters, into any deal with the FARC, which boasts around 9,000.
The government is taking a risk by continuing to sideline the ELN. Felipe Torres, a former member of its national directorate, recently told El Colombiano that the group is far stronger politically than militarily. He said that just one-fifth of its supporters have taken up arms. If true, that should make it easier for the ELN to follow the FARC’s lead by ceasing its campaign of violence and freeing its hostages—steps that the government will surely demand before opening any separate peace process with Colombia’s “other” guerrillas.