One Kidnapping too far?
ELN promise to release the father of iconic footballer, but have they already broken the peace?
Last Saturday, the parents of Liverpool football player Luis Díaz were stopped by armed gunmen on motorcycles in La Guajira, in northeastern Colombia. The armed men took his parents, Cilenis Marulanda and Luis Manuel Díaz, with them and fled into the mountainous desert countryside that straddles the Venezuelan border.
Marulanda was later released by the kidnappers as police closed, but the senior Diaz remains missing, and presumably in the custody of those who took him forcibly.
In the days that followed, hundreds of police descended upon the town of Barrancas,where the kidnapping occurred. They initially blamed local gangs, but on Thursday the Colombian government blamed a unit of the rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and demanded he be released.
The ELN later that day promised to secure freedom for Diaz in a matter of days.
The Colombian government and the ELN, after nearly a year of negotiations, signed a 6-month ceasefire in August.
The story has captured public imagination and dominated headlines in the country, where football is a national passion, and Díaz is a beloved figure. But beyond just the cultural resonance of an iconic footballer, the incident also represents a grave threat to President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” plans for the country, which involve negotiating directly with criminal armed groups in return for their eventual disarmament.
The ELN does not have a clearly hierarchical command structure, and each “front” operates with a degree of regional autonomy. The public comments by ELN representatives, though it did not outright say so, suggests that the kidnapping is a lapse in discipline rather than a top-down decision from upper leadership.
Nonetheless, Carlos Velandia, an ex ELN commander who has worked as an informal advisor to the government during the negotiation process called the kidnapping “an act of the highest possible gravity in light of the bilateral ceasefire between the government and ELN,” not only because it represents a violation in the ceasefire protocols and for basic human rights reasons, but also because the act “serves no negotiating purpose, and endangers ongoing peace processes.”
“This puts intense pressure on a delicate thread that could snap at any moment,” he said, referring to those processes.
Past negotiations between the government and the ELN have failed five times, most recently in 2019 after the ELN bombed a police academy in Bogotá in an attack that killed 21 people and left dozens more wounded.
Violence in rural areas is rising— a continuation of a trend that began under former president Iván Duque and which Petro has been seemingly unable to stop. There have been 76 massacres so far this year, and kidnappings are surging as well with a 70% increase in the first 9 months of 2023 compared to the same period last year.
The rise has conjured dark memories in Colombia of the civil war when kidnappings for ransom were commonplace, and a large part of how criminal armed groups funded their activities.
The government has so far not suspended talks with the ELN, but many experts consider that a distinct possibility. The issue of kidnapping specifically was a flash point in the days leading up to the August ceasefire, with ELN negotiators suggesting at the time that they would not be specifically prohibited under the outlined protocols.
The government strongly rejected that assertion, but according to International Crisis Group Andean expert Elizabeth Dickinson the documents signed by both parties are unclear on the subject.
The kidnapping by ELN has inspired popular outcry against the rebel group, as well as criticism of Petro by his detractors. Petro has seen falling approval numbers in recent months and his coalition suffered a resounding defeat in local elections last week.
This flare-up is likely to increase discontent in regions plagued with conflict as residents in rural areas grow frustrated with a lack of peace-building.
"The ELN today is responsible for the life of Luis Diaz's father,” said President Petro from Washington where he is attending a regional summit. “They have carried out an act that goes against the peace process itself. I express my deepest rejection.":
The government peace delegation in charge of negotiations with the rebel group on Friday demanded the release of Diaz and announced that it will take the case to the Mechanism for Monitoring and Verification of the bilateral ceasefire.
The United Nations mission in the country that verifies these mechanisms indicated that the complaint will be processed in accordance with the protocols and expressed its willingness to assist in the resolution of the situation.
Meanwhile, the government has deployed search planes to the region and is offering a $40,000 reward for information that leads to the return of Diaz.
Has the ELN sabotaged peace again? Or will he be returned home? The next few days will reveal the answer.
The Big Headlines in Latam
Massive protests continue in Guatemala despite police crackdowns by outgoing president Alejandro Giammattei. In the latest round of political elites trying to interfere with the landslide win of president-elect Bernardo Arévalo, the country’s Electoral Judiciary dissolved Arévalo’s party Semilla. The decision is unprecedented in Guatemala’s history and the immediate ramifications are unclear.
Most lawyers, however, predict that Arévalo will still be able to assume office. Legislators in his party will likely be forced to legally become independents, a classification that prevents them from sitting on Congressional committees or holding leadership positions.
The OAC and the US have sharply criticized the decision and placed a new round of sanctions on several prominent Guatemalan politicians.
Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Israel over human rights violations in their ongoing siege on Gaza. Colombia, Chile and Honduras also all recalled their ambassadors from Israel this week, each criticizing Israeli policy.
Israel responded by claiming those countries supported “terrorism” but took no further actions. The country has strong trade and security relationships especially with Colombia, a situation we explained in depth two weeks ago.
Spanish Word of the Week
Ahogarse en un vaso de agua - to drown oneself in a glass of water
Whereas English speaking people can sometimes make mountains out of molehills, Spanish speakers are more dramatic. When someone gets too worked up over a minor problem, or comes up with a complex solution to a simple situation, they are “drowning themselves in a glass of water”.
Molehills seem less dangerous.