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There's renewed hope for peace in Colombia's fight against rebel groups, drug cartels

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Colombia has begun a cease-fire fire with a rebel group called the ELN. This is an effort to end an insurgency that has lasted for generations. Years ago, Colombia made a peace deal with a different rebel group. But fighting with the ELN and others continued up to now. Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group focuses on Colombia. Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: OK, under this cease-fire agreement, what is each side supposed to do?

DICKINSON: Well, so the goal of this agreement is really to work towards de-escalation. Conflict continues to affect the daily lives of millions of Colombians who live in fear - fear that their child will be recruited, fear of targeted assassination, fear that they'll somehow get on the wrong side of one of these - of this armed group and face the consequences of that. So this cease-fire is really to create space, first of all, for negotiation between this group, the National Liberation Army, ELN, and the government, and second, to work towards a humanitarian de-escalation. And I think this is the first of many steps that I hope that we can now work towards. This cease-fire particularly targets clashes between the ELN and the state forces. So the military, the police. And I think a next step would really be to work towards an agreement that specifically lays out what needs to stop happening in terms of abuses toward the civilian population.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting you mention the civilian population, because that is my image of the various insurgencies in Colombia over the years. You have these rebel groups. They may hide in the jungles. They may even hide in the cities. And periodically, they strike out a different targets in urban areas and elsewhere or even raid a village somewhere. Is that the kind of thing that they want to stop here?

DICKINSON: Well, that's exactly right. And I think it's key to understand that since this previous peace agreement in 2016 with the FARC, the conflict in Colombia has grown quite a bit more chaotic. There are more groups. Many of them are smaller, with localized control. And frankly, many of them are not in uniform. So the civilian population often goes about their daily life not knowing whether their neighbor, the person they're interacting with, you know, at the store, on their farm is informing to the group, is a member of the group. And this creates just sort of a generalized fear that has been really debilitating in terms of the social cohesion of the very society of Colombia. You know, the ELN is a communist insurgency. And so their work in the population has been a huge part of of their ideology. And I think disarticulating that violence from daily life in Colombia is really the end goal. And this is - this cease-fire is the first of many steps that will be needed to do that.

INSKEEP: Is it truly an ideological group that favors communism? Or at this point, is it more of just an armed group that fights to fight?

DICKINSON: You know, the ELN maintains a significant ideology, and that's something that makes it really significant that there have been advances in the negotiation with this group because in many ways, it really is the last of the ideological insurgencies in Colombia, a conflict that's been going on for half of a century. And so it would mark not only a symbolic but really a concrete success in terms of the dividend of peace that regular people are feeling if some of that sort of politics can be stripped away from the violence that it's been associated with for so long.

INSKEEP: When you talk with people that you know in Colombia - we'll mention you're outside of the country right now - do you get a sense of optimism that this cease-fire could really work?

DICKINSON: You know, we do a lot of work in areas where the ELN is present. I spent a lot of time in Arauca, for example, which is along the border with Venezuela. And there I think, you know, we have no choice but to hope and not just hope but force and really ensure that from all aspects of society, also from the military, also from the ELN itself, that this cease-fire is successful because there really is no other option out of this conflict except negotiation and keeping our eye really on that end goal of keeping civilians safe in the context of what has been a long-running conflict.

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group. Thanks.

DICKINSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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