Colombian President Gustavo Petro is being forced to confront the possibility that his flagship security policy, Total Peace (Paz Total), may only have partial peace in its sights.

National-level peace talks have broken down between the government and two of the armed groups in the most advanced stages of negotiations, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC). Petro’s negotiators are now engaging with individual blocs or fronts around the country, rather than solely dealing with the national leadership of the two groups. 

The president’s Total Peace plan has sought to negotiate with armed groups and criminal gangs to achieve top-down demobilization similar to the process that saw the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Revolucionarias Armadas de Colombia — FARC) lay down its arms starting in 2017. 

But Petro’s ambitious initiative has floundered since it started in late 2022. And now, internal divisions over the peace talks have sent the ELN and EMC into crisis mode, according to Otty Patino, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace (Alto Comisionado para la Paz), who leads the government’s peace negotiations.


The ELN’s national leaders temporarily suspended the group’s participation in the talks on April 11, enraged by a “regional dialogue” with the group’s Comuneros del Sur Front, which wants to expedite its demobilization process, according to a press release from the ELN delegation.

The ELN’s top commander, Antonio García, claimed in an interview with Spanish newspaper, Berria, that the national leadership did not authorize those separate discussions. Pablo Beltrán, leader of the ELN delegation to the peace talks, urged the government to specify the objectives and purpose of the “parallel negotiations,” while speaking to journalists in Caracas, Venezuela.

SEE ALSO: In Cauca, Colombian Rebels Make War While Talking Peace

The government and the Comuneros del Sur Front had announced the talks in February. The decision was driven by the front’s worries about the threat posed by the EMC’s growing dominance and military strength in the southwestern department of Nariño, a cocaine production and trafficking hub that is the base of operations for the Comuneros del Sur. 

Feeling the pressure of potential defeat, the front opted to enter an accelerated peace process after seeing no concrete results from the national-level negotiations.

The ELN’s national leaders later agreed to rejoin the negotiations, but the regional peace talks with the Comuneros del Sur will also continue and could cause more problems down the line. On April 27, government representatives in the ELN negotiations asked Petro to either continue dialogues with the ELN national leadership or with the Comuneros del Sur, as a double negotiation is not viable, according to a press release.


Internal divisions over the peace talks have also derailed the government’s negotiations with the national leadership of the EMC. 

In March, Petro suspended a ceasefire with the EMC in Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño, in response to an attack that killed an Indigenous leader in Cauca. This sparked tensions within the EMC, with some blocs advocating for continuing dialogue and others unwilling to engage until a national ceasefire is reinstated.

At a meeting in Caquetá on April 5 between the government and the EMC, delegates agreed to continue peace talks, but representatives from EMC blocs in Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Arauca were notably absent, highlighting internal discord. Leaders of these absent blocs later released videos affirming loyalty to the EMC’s top commander, Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” who has refused to continue in dialogues without a nationwide ceasefire.

Camilo González, the government’s chief negotiator with the EMC, has stated that negotiations would proceed only with the EMC factions willing to continue, namely the Jorge Suárez Briceño Bloc, the Magdalena Medio Bloc, and the Carolina Ramírez Front, despite the partial ceasefire suspension. These factions collectively represent approximately 40% of what was previously considered the EMC. In practice, the government has acknowledged that negotiating with this smaller portion of the group, whom Mordisco seems to have lost command over, is the most viable way forward.

InSight Crime Analysis

The breakdown in negotiations for each group has distinct roots, but both have led to a similar result: the government is ready to risk talks with the larger criminal organizations if they can secure regional-level victories with smaller factions willing to disarm. 

Petro’s willingness to engage with the regional blocs of the EMC and with individual fronts in the case of the ELN signifies a change in the government’s approach to peace negotiations. It is a departure from the government’s previous notion of a centralized command structure within these armed groups, and an acknowledgment that neither Antonio García nor Iván Mordisco holds absolute control over the ELN or EMC, respectively.

The strategic shift may yield results. The Petro government has progressed rapidly in discussions with the Comuneros del Sur and has opted to sustain dialogues exclusively with the three factions of the EMC.

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s Total Peace May Be Unraveling

If the government achieves a successful and swift demobilization of the Comuneros del Sur, the process could serve as a blueprint for other talks around the country. Other individual fronts fearful of military defeat, or who are also frustrated by the lack of progress at the national level, may see a future in the regional approach.

Similarly, reaching an agreement with the remaining EMC fronts involved in peace talks would be a significant achievement. However, as approximately 60% of what was considered the EMC is now excluded from the process, the success will be only partial and will create a new cycle of dissidents from the peace process.

This regional approach also has its drawbacks. Achieving demobilization agreements with individual fronts or blocs of both the EMC or the ELN may bring localized security improvements, but would likely have less impact on Colombia’s overall internal conflict dynamics. 

Additionally, negotiating with multiple fronts or blocs simultaneously requires the government to invest significantly more money and personnel. With resources spread thin, even piecemeal agreements may become harder to achieve.

Feature image: A guerrilla of the EMC stands guard at a checkpoint in Corinto, Colombia, Friday, April 12, 2024, a day after a car bomb explosion in the nearby town of Miranda. Credit: Edwin Rodriguez, Associated Press