Return to Recent Articles menu

Colombia: The Ethics of War and the Right to Criticise the Guerrillas

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

27 February 2018

A recent article of mine upset various people in the NGOs to such an extent that one of them no longer greets me in the street.  I had criticised their demands on the ELN and their demand that the ELN declare a unilateral ceasefire, something which they didnít ask of the state at any stage.  Does this mean that the guerrillas i.e. the ELN, and also the FARC, canít be criticized?  The short answer is of course they can, one can criticize the ELN, but it is not as simple as the NGOs and some intellectuals would have us believe.

Everyone has the right to criticise the guerrillas, that much is obvious.  But the act of criticism is not neutral and is replete with subjectivities not acknowledged by the authors of recent declarations against the ELN.  When we criticise something we reveal failings, mistakes, a lack of ethics, incoherencies and even unjustifiable acts in the other.  However, we also bring into the open our own position, our theoretical framework, our paradigm and political and ethical stake.  Who we criticise and how we do it on specific occasions, lays bare our priorities, which change over time.  Those who criticise the ELN for kidnapping, didnít always do so, and some of them have never made similar criticisms of the FARC.  Times change, priorities change as do the circumstances.  The impact or consequences of our criticisms also change, especially when they come from nowhere, in the midst of decades of silence on the issue.

We are not talking about criticisms of the effectiveness of the armed struggle, nor the relationship between the insurgency and the working class and peasantry.  Neither are we talking about how to change a military strategy for one that advances the peopleís causes.  Although some would say they make their criticisms due to the negative impact of the armed struggle on class struggle, it is not the case.  This is not a debate with the insurgency on the best way to organize the workers and peasants struggles, the criticisms are just specific criticisms lacking in any reference to the peopleís demands, as the critics do not want to change Colombian society, or at least the changes they put forward are not deep rooted ones and any struggle against the state itself is written off.

Here I aim to deal with three issues, not signing up to the FARCís agreement, kidnapping and violence after the ending of the ceasefire.

The Havana Accord

Many NGOs and intellectuals criticised the ELN for not adhering to the accord signed by the FARC.  They have a right to do so if they have a favourable opinion of the said accord.  Above all it was a sign of sectarianism from a sector of the NGOs that were flirting with the farianos and their process.  They said the ELN was smaller, less powerful in military terms also.  All of this is true, but there are reasons for this.  The ELN is smaller than the FARC for a very simple reason, they did not benefit as much from the coca boom, so they were less able to expand towards zones where there werenít any ideal conditions in which to sustain themselves.  It is also true that they have a less developed military capability.  It is not the case that the ELN places no importance on the issue, at the end of the day it is a military organization, but rather its hybrid political-military structure that defines them, requires that the armed guerrilla also spends time on political work.  The analysts know this, but they prefer to present the size of the ELN and its activity as a weakness and not as the result of political decisions taken as an organisation.

However, some would say it is not important why, the fact is that as a smaller organisation they will never obtain more than the FARC.  It is curious how intellectuals who claim to be against the war accept the militarist logic of the conflict, which demonstrates that we are not talking about a debate with the ELN.

The ELN just had a different perspective and proposal, which included something the NGOs always discount i.e. the participation of the people, which is not the same as an NGO attending a meeting in Havana.  The NGOs are not the organised people, but rather the usurpation of the right to speak on behalf of the people.

Proposing that the ELN accept the accord already signed by another organisation is legitimate, but this is to accept that not only the ELN agrees to the said accord but also that there can be no proposals different to a bilateral negotiation behind the backs of the people, such as the deal done with the FARC.  Fortunately, the elenos still dream of a process that involves the people, which is desirable, though I am not sure as to what extent that can be done in a negotiation between an armed organisation and the state (this is a debate for another time, a debate that the NGOs do not want).

They accepted an accord without an agrarian reform and without any democratisation, one only has to look at the FARCís electoral campaign which they suspended due to the lack of guarantees.  And their proposals on illicit crops are totally divorced from reality.(1)  The criticisms of the ELN for not accepting this accord are at the same time a clear signal to the state that the NGOs and intellectuals have no intentions of fighting for more, at any point in time and that the state neednít worry and can proceed with its neoliberal policies.  They have a right to criticise the ELN on this point, if they wish, but this places them on the same side as the state and it is to accept the militarist logic of the war, that they say they donít want.


When we talk of kidnapping, we are really talking about a type of forcible retention of a person.  Extortionate kidnapping exists, which is the retaining of a person and the demand for something in exchange for their freedom; there are also retentions at a checkpoint, a fleeting specific retention to identify a person; there is also the prolonged retention of a person whilst their identity and purpose of their presence in the zone is investigated; and lastly there is the taking of hostages in a building.  In the public imagination these four types of retention are usually conflated with extortionate kidnapping, even though they are different.  The guerrillas usually justify these measures due to the necessities of the war and their security and that of their social base and on the other hand in the case of extortionate kidnappings as a punishment to the corrupt (the case of the Sánchez brothers) and as a way of demanding payment of their revolutionary taxes from companies or businessmen that operate in the areas they control or where they exercise some power.

Kidnapping, even if it is justified (which is debatable) leaves physical and psychological scars (in the deterioration of the health of the kidnapped ) and also economic suffering, not only due to the payment of the ransom but also in what is lost, what lawyers term damages and loss of future earnings.  It is a common practice in the war in Colombia and although the FARC and the ELN have justified their kidnappings, it is still something terrible for those who suffer it and empathy with the kidnapped is understandable.

Odín Sánchez

Odín Sánchez is a corrupt Colombian politician sentenced to nine years in jail for setting up and overseeing paramilitary groups and also fined 11,000 minimum salaries, i.e. 5,885 million pesos (2-2.5 million dollars at the time).(2)  The money he owes the state has been earmarked for the Victims Unit.  His kidnapping by the ELN (and there is no doubt it was a kidnapping) became a huge obstacle to the start of negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian state.(3)  Sánchez had voluntarily taken the place of his brother Patrocinio who had been in the power of the guerrilla group for three years.  Patrocinio had also been sentenced, but for embezzlement when he was Governor of the department of Chocó and was fined 10,000 billion pesos for irregularities in the awarding of contracts in the health sector when he was Mayor of Quibdó.  The ELN initially aimed to subject him to a political trial.(4)  Neither of them were saints, though this doesnít automatically justify the kidnapping but it may be something to bear in mind.

To many people it was unthinkable that the ELN would continue kidnapping whilst they talked about peace and Odín Sánchez became a sort of banner against the practice and the ELN itself.  The criticism rained down, as much for the kidnapping as prioritising it above a peace process with the state.

In a letter 100 intellectuals protested to the ELN:

ďFrom the 1980s of the previous century, the ELN has insisted upon the need for the humanisation of the war and the strict application of International Humanitarian Law.  However, it continues to carry out kidnappings, which is unacceptable.  For this reason, we demand the immediate liberation of Odín Sánchez and the definitive ending of this practice.Ē(5)

Amongst the signatories is Alejo Vargas, the intellectual decorated by the army and also Andrés Gil, the spokesperson for the Patriotic March and current member of the Central Committee of the FARC.  I know of no declaration by the Patriotic March nor Andrés Gil regarding the kidnapping carried out by the FARC.  Given that he is now a member of their Central Committee, maybe he will bring us up to speed.

However, some commentators did remind Santos that there were other people kidnapped and the Sánchez had done a lot of harm to the country and the department where they are still a significant political force.  The columnist Oscar Sevillano stated:

ďIt is not acceptable that President Juan Manuel Santos makes the dialogue with the ELN conditional on the liberation of Odín Sánchez when he is not the only person kidnapped by the ELN.  The logical thing would be to ask them to free all people the armed group have in their power, because I am full sure that unlike the former congressman, they do not belong to a clique of corrupt people, nor have they had dealings with the paramilitaries.Ē(6)

The ELN finally released the criminal, Odín Sánchez, and his family grumbled about the situation they had lived through and the ransom they had to pay, ďAstrid Sánchez, the sister of the former parliamentarian stated that the ransom Ďleft them in penuryí and stressed that ďwe were humiliated, we had to sell many properties in order to raise the sum and send it to themíĒ.(7)  Nobody asked why they had never sold those farms to pay off Odín Sánchezís debt to Colombian society.

Kidnapping and captivity in general are complicated situations and it is natural to feel some empathy with the victim.  However, it is difficult to feel any empathy with a criminal of the class of Odín Sánchez.

Corporal Norberto

I remember the case of Corporal Norberto.  It moved me a lot.  The majority of the people and certainly many of those who condemned the ELN in the case of Odín Sánchez have forgotten about the Corporal.  Not me, I do remember him.

Corporal Norberto Pérez was a Colombian police officer who fell into the hands of the FARCís 44th front in March 2000, right during the peace process with the then insurgent group.  His son Andrés Felipe, was a sick child who during the captivity of his father underwent various surgical interventions.  His death was a question of time and the child was conscious of the fact and asked the FARC to free his father.(8)  At the time the FARC had hundreds of soldiers and police officers in their power and before the passing of the child they freed a large group of them, but Corporal Norberto was not among them.  It would not have cost them anything to free him, one more or less did not change one bit the logic of the war nor their insistence on a humanitarian exchange.  The FARC asked to exchange him for a police officer.  The government flat out rejected the idea.  When the child died the FARC showed an arrogance and insensitivity stating that:

ďAndres Felipe never had a father.  Despite his cancer his father abandoned him after six months. But now, in the face of the imminent death of the child, everyone wants the father and child to be reunited. And so they exploit without any mercy or pity the photos of his pain.Ē(9)

They even rejected Fidel Castroís intervention, telling him that many children die in Colombia and the most important thing was their triumph.(10)  Such stupidity, it was the child who asked to see his father, it was the child who ended up being punished.  Was there any manipulation of the issue by the media?  Certainly, but that does not change the reality that they had already freed various soldiers and policemen, it wouldnít have cost them anything to please the child.  It was an inhumane act, a political stupidity.  They could have freed the Corporal and with him handed over a list of guerrillas whose relatives were ill and ask for a humane act on the part of the state.  They just werenít up to the task.  The state could have exchanged a prisoner for the Corporal, and that they didnít says a lot about the state which the NGOs like so much.  But the FARC cannot justify their decision, they placed the fate of a terminally ill childís wish in the hands of an immoral state.

What has any of this got to do with Odín Sánchez and the ELN?  Everything, they negotiated with the FARC despite the prisoners of war and the economic kidnap victims in their power.  Despite such an ignoble act, Pastrana did not break off talks with the FARC, though he would do so some months later over the kidnapping of a politician (which also indicates his own criteria and priorities in the conflict, the poor dying is one thing, but the rich must not be touched).

Redepaz did criticise the FARC, but many of those who now raise their voice against kidnapping, kept silent in relation to the Norberto case, a silence which has lasted to the present day.  Nobody called to break off the talks with the FARC and when they finally broke down, nobody blamed the FARC.  Of course, they were different times, many people travelled to the Cagúan to talk to the FARC, have a photo and a drink with the commanders and upon their return, over a coffee or another drink, they would entertain us amid smiles and winks with tales about the comrades.  Poor things, Gabino [ELN Commander] never treated them to a whiskey.

Also, amongst those who criticise the ELN are various people who still speak of the storming, by M-19, of the Dominican Embassy in 1980, an extortionate kidnapping that demanded the liberation of political prisoners, but also the payment of a ransom.  Over the laughter they talk of how good this blow was; audacious.  But it is still a kidnapping, but they are not concerned because it was a kidnapping that they not only justify, it still warms their hearts.  Of course it warms their heart over a coffee or a stiff shot.  The cowards would never publicly say so, as one government or international aid agency would, without delay, cut off the flow of funds.

Kidnapping is censurable in various aspects, but not in all. Those who condemn kidnapping by the ELN, justify prison, they are not abolitionists, one can deprive someone of their liberty, it is not just a moral question, although it is traversed by moral issues, but rather it is a question of legitimacy and power, it ultimately depends on who deprives who and why.  The intellectuals now accept the sole legitimacy of the state and they have the right to do so, but this reflects their political position and attitude towards, not just the ELN, but also Colombian society.  The ELNís big mistake was not to treat the issue in a more political manner, to demand that Sánchez pay his debts, demand of the state a commitment to ensuring the he fully comply with the economic aspect of his sentence.

Of course, there are those who have been condemning any form of forcible retention by the guerrillas.  They are, at least, coherent.  But many of those who have risen up, in the context of the peace process with the ELN, as defenders of human dignity and against kidnapping, cannot say the same and we must doubt the sincerity of their declarations and question why they do so now and did not before.  Did their bosses in the EU and the Colombian government explicitly demand it of them, or did they second guess them?


I have already dealt with the issue of violence in a previous article.(11) But here it is worth looking at some political aspects of the denouncements of the ELN.  When the ELN refused to call for a vote in favour of the referendum on the Havana Accord signed between the FARC and the state, Lucho Celis denounced them, stating they were on a par with the Uribistas(12) because in his world and that of other characters from the world of the NGOs, the ELN should have adhered to that accord as, according to Celis, it benefitted society, although it also benefitted the pensions, private medical plans and other NGO investments.  The ELNís refusal negatively affected the peace business.  But it is also the case that the NGOs donít accept criticism, they donít accept discussions.  When they usurp the representation of the people, there can only be one discourse: theirs.

We find ourselves again faced with this discourse.  In a recent article Alberto Chaves demanded that the ELN bring an end to their militancy on the extreme right.  Without blushing he stated:

ďI understand that you reject the legitimacy of the state and you believe you have little or nothing to do with how public life unfolds in the country; I understand that you view one government much the same as another, as long it is not you who govern.  I donít see it that way: I fear to think of a country that returns to presiding over state terrorism, in a country governed by the sympathisers of the paramilitaries.  Call off your militancy on their behalf, each violent act is as favourable to them as it is damaging to your future political careers Ė that is if you have envisaged them at all.  Allow this country to talk of transition and take away the ruling classes wild card of talking about the guerrillas as the only issue to deal with.  Allow us to talk of the conflict in the past tense and not in the future tense.Ē(13)

It is obvious that he does not understand the elenos when he talks about their future political careers, but the most poisonous aspect of his text is that he accuses them of being militants of the extreme right.  It is true that the armed actions of an organisation can generate negative impacts for social movements, I have said as much in various books, the latest on the Machuca attack, an event which facilitated the entry of the paramilitaries to the North East of Antioquia.  But that doesnít explain everything, there are other factors to bear in mind, such as the actions of the state forces, politicians such as César Pérez, now sentenced to 25 years in jail for the massacre of 1988 (ten years before the Machuca attack).  Just as with the Machuca case, there are other factors to bear in mind, such as the role of the evangelical and catholic churches, loyal defenders of the most rotten corrupt murderers in the country.  This is not the ELNís fault, neither are they to blame for the fact that the Left in the cities and towns where it has governed has faithfully replicated the corrupt practises of the right, plundering the exchequer, influence peddling, the sale of positions (even in Congress).  All of this has its effect when it comes to voting.  The poor person looks at the right wing corrupt person offering 50,000 pesos for their vote [18 dollars] and they look at the corrupt leftie who does not buy their vote and moreover denies they are even corrupt, when the poor person knows they steal just like the right.  The ELN are not to blame for that situation, this is the baby of the legal left that has always competed with the right to see who can steal more.  The Uribista candidate is Alejandro Ordóñez, who at the time received the support of the legal Left to obtain the post of Procurator General.  Had he not obtained that position it is doubtful that he would now be the candidate of the extreme right.  This type of left is not inspirational.  But of course , it is all the ELNís fault.

That Left whose lawyers do not want to take on criminal cases brought against grassroots leaders, but who wait whilst other less wealthy and more committed lawyers take these cases on and then like falcons falling on their prey in mid-flight take the civil or administrative case.  Well, you canít profit as much from criminal cases as civil cases.  Is this the Left that demands an ethical position from the ELN? Yes.

As I have said, the ELN bears responsibility for many things and it is legitimate to condemn it, but coherently.  The most recent criticisms are not.  The Right always blamed the insurgencies for all of the problems of the country, now the Left wants to blame the ELN for its own failure over the years.  How things have changed!


(1) See Ó Loingsigh, G. (2016) Peace and Drugs available at

(2) Noticias RCN (29/08/2016) Odín Sánchez, secuestrado por el ELN, debe 5.885 millones de pesos al Estado

 (3) El Espectador (27/10/2016) Odín Sánchez, el inamovible de Santos para la negociación con el Eln

 (4) El Tiempo (02/02/2017) Odín Sánchez, el polémico político que terminó secuestrado por el Eln

(5) De Currea-Lugo, V. Et al. (09/01/2017) Carta Pública a la Mesa Gobierno-ELN

(6) El Espectador (02/11/2016) Odín Sánchez, ¿un secuestro conveniente?

(7) Noticias RCN (02/02/2017) Odín Sánchez: "no fue un gesto humanitario sino un secuestro extorsivo"

(8) El Tiempo (19/12/2001) OTRA INSENSATEZ DE LAS FARC

(9) Caracol Radio (18/12/2001) Adiós Andrés Felipe , las Farc no escucharon su clamor

(10) Caracol Radio (18/12/2001) Adiós Andrés Felipe , las Farc no escucharon su clamor

(11) See Ó Loingsigh, G. (31/01/2018) The ELN and the Ceasefire

(12) See Ó Loingsigh, G. (29/08/2016) The FARC, Peace and their Allies

(13) Chaves, A. (13/02/2018) Carta abierta al Eln: Cesen su militancia en la ultra derecha

Return to top of page