As Colombian authorities negotiate the final steps of a delicate but landmark peace process with the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla army, the FARC, it is stepping up its military operations aganst the smaller armed political movement, the ELN,
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Authorities Monday announced the results of last week’s offensive, saying the operation aimed to significantly reduce ELN finances by targeting informal mining operations, AFP reported.
In a press release, Colombia’s military command called the operation in the western department of Cauca a “historic offensive against criminal mining.” Authorities claimed that the offensive targeting four areas around the Timbiqui river was “one of the most successful operations” against illicit mining.
“Illegal mining is the high-value target,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wrote on his Twitter account Monday. “Operation against ELN in Cauca leaves 26 excavators destroyed, two captured.” Authorities indicated in a statement that those captured will face charges for illegal mining, environmental damage, and other crimes.
Colombia’s Ministry of Defense estimates that the National Liberation Army of ELN and “other armed groups” extract some nearly 40 pounds, or 18 kilograms, of gold per day, according to information released on its Twitter account.
Cauca, where the offensive was carried out, has been one of the areas hardest hit by Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict, with Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and campesino communities bearing the brunt of state, paramilitary, and sometimes guerrilla violence. The department, along with others, has been heavily militarized through Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S. military aid package launched in 2000 to support counternarcotics and counterinsurgency strategy in the South American country.
Last month, four ELN rebels were killed in the Timbiqui area in a military, navy, and police offensive against the guerrilla army. Authorities claimed the attack “significantly affects logistics and criminal structure” of the ELN, according to Colombia reported.
But the ELN has also been left out of the peace process. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in peace negotiations with the government for almost four years, has stated that peace will not be complete unless the ELN is included. Many analysts have made the same argument.
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The ELN has repeatedly expressed its openness to beginning peace talks with the government, but said the military escalation is not an olive branch.
The ELN, founded in 1964 and inspired by the Cuban revolution, is smaller and less well known than the FARC. The rebel army and the government agreed in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 30 to launch a peace process, but no further steps have been taken. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has offered to host the talks.
A historic peace agreement between the government and the FARC, expected as early as the end of this month, is set to bring an end to five decades of civil war that have claimed over 220,000. After Syria, it is home to the world’s second largest population of internally displaced people with nearly 6 million forced from their homes by violence and conflict.
The FARC argues that the end of the war is the beginning of peace and a process of reconciliation to unite “two Colombias,” one of which represents the marginalized groups that have suffered the most under the armed conflict.