Since the electoral victory of Gustavo Petro in Colombia, great expectations have been generated regarding some binational issues, such as the reestablishment of diplomatic and consular relations, the complete reopening of borders, the reactivation of commercial relations and even the resumption of military relations. According to the media, at the meeting held by the foreign ministers of both countries on July 28, these subjects were discussed. However, the issue of the presence of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Venezuela has not yet appeared on the agenda.
In a statement to the media, Faría, Maduro’s foreign minister, stated that they had talked about security and peace on the border, but it is not clear if that included the presence of the ELN in Venezuela.
As is known, the presence of the ELN on the Venezuelan side is long-standing. In the 1980s and 1990s, both the ELN and the FARC made frequent incursions into Venezuelan territory and assaulted military border posts to stock up on weapons. The border was used as a spillway and supply zone, but without a major permanent presence. As of the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power, attacks on military posts by Colombian guerrilla groups ceased, which suggests that their supply and protection no longer had to be by force.
Progressively, a greater presence of the Colombian guerrillas in Venezuelan territory begins to be registered, with a clear control of the population and territory. In recent years, the presence has been extended to non-border states and with incursion into mining activity -an area in which they already have experience in Colombia-, especially since the start of operations of the Orinoco Mining Arc.
Uncontrolled gold mining has serious impacts on the environment and on the integrity of the territory and the lives of indigenous peoples, especially in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar in Venezuela, where an alarming number of murders against members of indigenous communities are beginning to be recorded. On the other hand, the constant attacks on the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline in Colombian territory generate environmental effects in Venezuelan territory, since the oil spills caused by the attacks flow through some rivers that are part of the Lake Maracaibo basin in Venezuelan territory.
In this way, the ELN has not only become a binational guerrilla, but has transferred to Venezuelan territory consequences that go beyond collateral damage from the armed conflict, in two matters that are of great interest to Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez, such as the rights of indigenous peoples and the right to a healthy environment.
This August 11, a Colombian delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva, traveled to Cuba to start approaches with the ELN. Undoubtedly, Foreign Minister Leyva’s experience as a peace mediator will be an asset of great value in any process, and the willingness of the government he represents to restore relations with Venezuela could be good news for Venezuelans.
However, as long as they feel comfortable, dominating a territory and participating in mining extraction, the ELN in Venezuela has little incentive to negotiate peace. On the other hand, to the extent that the conflict between the ELN and the Colombian State has crossed borders to become a binational conflict, any negotiation must also have a binational approach, with special consideration for the environmental impact and the rights of indigenous peoples, since it is not easy to imagine the Maduro government assuming a facilitating role in a peace process, when the presence of the ELN has been functional to its own interests. If incentives have to be sought for the ELN, they will also have to be sought for those who hold power in Venezuela.
In 2021, some 60 organizations from Colombia and Venezuela requested the Secretary General of the United Nations to appoint a special envoy for the border crisis between the two countries. The UN has a verification mission in Colombia and, although Guterres has been extremely cautious in generating proposals regarding the Venezuelan crisis, perhaps the fact that it is a binational issue could renew the relevance of this proposal, especially bearing in mind that what happens with the ELN beyond Colombian territory could have a negative effect on the fulfillment of the objectives of the UN mission in Colombia.
CSOs and the international community have a new opportunity to support a process aimed at lasting peace in a territory that equally affects the Colombian and Venezuelan people.