Colombian rebel leader says peace talks with the government are ‘on pause’

Colombian President Gustavo Petro
Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaks at the May 9 swearing-in ceremony of Bogota’s new police chief.
(John Vizcaino / Associated Press)

Colombian rebel leader Pablo Beltran said Monday that peace talks between his National Liberation Army and the government have been put “on pause” because of remarks made last week by President Gustavo Petro.

The president questioned whether members of the rebel group’s delegation in Cuba could effectively control the actions of the group’s commanders on the battlefield. He also said the younger leaders of the group, known as the ELN, were motivated not by political goals but by drug-trafficking profits.

In an interview posted on YouTube by the ELN’s communication team, Beltran said that delegations from both sides would have to meet to “examine” Petro’s comments before discussion could continue on issues such as a cease-fire and rural development programs. The talks began in November and have failed to produce any major breakthroughs so far.


The ELN was recognized as “an armed rebel group” by Colombia’s government during the last round of talks in Mexico, a designation that enables it to seek policy changes in peace talks instead of just negotiating reduced sentences for the group’s crimes. Beltran said Petro’s recent comments put its status as a “political organization” in jeopardy.

“If they are saying one thing in the negotiations while the president says another, we feel like we are stuck in the middle,” Beltran said. “So we are asking for an explanation.”

During a speech to military officers Friday, Petro described members of the ELN’s peace delegation as “elderly” leaders interested in discussing political changes. But he questioned whether younger ELN commanders who led troops on the ground had the same kind of goals.

The meeting on immigration, drugs and Venezuela was emblematic of the ideological balancing act the United States tries to navigate in its dealings with Colombia.

April 20, 2023

“They may use the same banners,” Petro said. “But what motivates them is [profiting from] illicit economies.” He added that older leaders such as Beltran were “willing to sit down and talk. But are they really in charge?”

The ELN was founded in the 1960s by union leaders, students and priests inspired by the Cuban revolution. It is Colombia’s largest remaining rebel group and has been notoriously difficult for previous Colombian governments to negotiate with.

In 2016, Colombia’s government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a larger group known as FARC, that ended five decades of conflict in which an estimated 260,000 people were killed. But violence has continued to affect rural pockets of the country where the ELN has been fighting the Gulf Clan and FARC holdout groups for the control of drug-trafficking routes and other resources.


Petro promised during his presidential campaign that he would seek peace deals with all of Colombia’s major armed groups by rolling out a strategy he described as “total peace.”

But a cease-fire between the Colombian government and the Gulf Clan broke down in March, while negotiations with FARC holdout groups are still in preliminary stages.