Unidentified men approach from the river.
“Soldiers or paramilitaries?” the rebel commander barks into his walkie-talkie.
Colombia’s ELN guerrillas may be in peace talks with the government in Bogota, but in the thick jungle where they live, weapons are the law of the land.
It has been three months since the National Liberation Army (ELN), a leftist group that has battled the government since 1964, reached a ceasefire deal with the administration of President Gustavo Petro, a former rebel himself.
That six-month accord — the longest cessation of hostilities in the ELN’s nearly 60-year insurrection — came within the framework of peace negotiations launched last year.
In late October, a senior ELN commander — identified here as 35-year-old Lucas — granted an interview with a team from AFP in the lush wilds of Choco, one of the most troubled departments in the country, on the Pacific coast.
Lucas says despite the ceasefire, the violence has not abated. He blames the unrest on an “alliance” between government security forces and the powerful paramilitary Gulf Clan drug cartel.
“As long as there is such collusion… it will be very difficult to move the political process forward,” says Lucas, his face disguised by a red and black scarf and a semi-automatic weapon always at his side.
AFP’s team traveled for several hours by canoe under ELN guard from the area near the city of Quibdo to reach the rebel encampment, in a mountainous area where the heat was oppressive.
This ELN contingent is made up of mainly Afro-Colombian or Indigenous men and women. They say they are fighting against the “enemy,” the army and “paramilitaries” who are working together to seize their territory.
Such accusations of collusion are roundly rejected by authorities in Bogota.
According to the Colombian think tank Indepaz, the rebels also have violated the ceasefire multiple times, especially in Choco — violence that has forced residents to hole up for days in their homes.
The region is the stronghold of the ELN’s so-called Western War Front, one of the group’s main units that has openly criticized the ongoing peace talks.
In Choco, “we talk about a ceasefire under fire,” says Lucas.
“There are still offensive operations targeting our units.”
The ELN is now the oldest guerrilla group still operating in Latin America, since the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) surrendered their weapons in 2016.
With some 5,800 combatants, the group is primarily active in the Pacific region and along the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Venezuela, meaning it operates in nearly 20 percent of Colombian municipalities — double its footprint in 2018.
The group, which also has a presence in urban areas and university communities, says it wants to establish a “democratic government for the people” — one that would nationalize certain industries and redistribute land holdings.
Its units on the ground are relatively autonomous.
Negotiations or attempts to launch talks have failed on five occasions with various governments in Bogota. Lucas says this time, the ELN does not wish to negotiate “hastily.”
Experts say the ELN’s decentralized organization could complicate peace talks, but Lucas rejects that idea, saying the group is unified “from head to toe” — from the negotiators, who have lived in Cuba for five years, to fighters in the jungle.
The Western War Front “never wanted… to be a dissident group. The ELN’s decision-making is centralized. But we reserve the political right to express our opinions,” he says.
The rebel commander also categorically rejects the claim that the ELN engages in extortion, charging locals with illegal “taxes,” and any role in cocaine trafficking or illegal mining activities.
Earlier this month, the ELN’s leader conceded that it had made a “mistake” when it kidnapped the father of Liverpool striker Luis Diaz. He was released last week after 12 days in captivity.
The incident recalled the days of the FARC, when kidnappings for ransom were commonplace, and thousands of civilians were abducted to finance their operations.
On Monday, ELN leader Antonio Garcia said the group — currently holding about 30 hostages — would not stop the abductions unless the government could promise another method of financing.
For the ELN members met by AFP, disarmament is a cause for concerns. Lucas says he believes the FARC surrendered their weapons too readily.
“We believe that the people should always have arms at their disposal… how can anyone accept declawing a tiger, when those claws allow it to defend itself?”