Colombia Frees ELN Rebel Leader

(International Relations and Security Network, 13/09/2005)


The Colombian government agreed on Monday to release Gerardo Bermudez Sanchez, the leader of Colombia's second-largest rebel group, the Army for National Liberty (ELN), for three months in a move the government hopes will help end the country's 40-year conflict.


Sanchez, known as Francisco Galan, is expected to be released this week, the Colombian daily El Tiempo reported.


The temporary release of Galan, the ELN's spokesman, is contingent upon the initiation of a dialog with Colombian civil society and ELN commanders to set an agenda for peace talks with the government.


Galan was captured on 3 December 1992 in the Colombian department of Santander. He has currently completed some ten years of a 30-year sentence for rebellion, terrorism, and kidnapping. He is being held in the Itagui maximum security prison, outside of Medellín in the Colombian department of Antioquia.


From his cell, Galan has access to an internet connection and cell phones, which allow him to maintain contact with the ELN high command and to continue in his position as a reliable go-between for dialog between Bogota and the ELN commanders.


Within the current environment of negotiations between the Colombian government and the country's right-wing paramilitary death squads, known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is under pressure to entice one of Colombia's two extremist organizations to sit at the negotiation table.


This recent peace offer to the ELN is a sign that Uribe no longer believes he will achieve peace talks with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the months ahead.


Uribe wants to suppress the FARC militarily. His administration and the US government have both supported Plan Patriota, a Colombian military incursion into traditional FARC strongholds in the department of Putamayo that has seen little success and proven unable to defeat FARC in the jungle. A cease-fire is the last thing the FARC wants to offer Uribe.


The ELN, however, is positioned to begin talks with Uribe if he is able to stomach its demands for a cease-fire. When the Colombian government began negotiating a cease-fire with the ELN, the group said it would be necessary to preserve financial solvency in order to maintain readiness during the negotiations.


The rebels' demands for cease-fire included a right to continue with kidnapping and other, less violent sources of income during the cease-fire. When Bogotá balked, the ELN demanded some US$40 million a month to maintain troop readiness. The demand was unacceptable to the Colombian government, and the talks soon dissolved.


"Getting the ELN to agree to a cease-fire is a big obstacle for Uribe," Center for International Policy Program Director Adam Isacson told ISN Security Watch. "Uribe would probably have a hard time paying the ELN every month, which would basically keep them combat ready," he said.


Under pressure to be perceived as even-handed with all of Colombia's armed groups, Uribe has made another pass at peace. It is expected that Galan "will talk with human rights groups, leftist political parties, and, especially, oil workers' unions to gather an agenda and state a position of negotiation", Isacson said.


Galan has been a top representative for the ELN for some seven years, according to Colombia's Caracol Radio News Service. Last year, on 4 June, he was allowed to leave prison to begin talks with the Colombian government through Colombia's ambassador to Mexico, Andres Valencia. The ELN suspended talks with Bogotá earlier this year because it felt the Mexican government was not a suitable mediator.


Galan was allowed to travel to Havana, Cuba in January 2002 to participate in a peace rally. He traveled to Costa Rica in October 2000 to participate in a forum on peace, and in December of that same year participated in the release of 42 kidnapped members of Colombia's police and military forces.


The ELN is Colombia's smaller revolutionary army and operates throughout the country. It has been struggling against the Colombian government for some 40 years and is believed to operate between 2,000 and 5,000 soldiers.