The Colombian Marxist National Liberation Army, known by the Spanish acronym ELN, has seriously damaged its standing with the Colombian people and government by antagonizing the Catholic Church — an important third party mediator in negotiations between the government and disaffected groups.
The ELN, long tired of being a poor relation to the more powerful Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as FARC, decided that it was time to be taken seriously by the government of President Pastrana.
With that goal in mind, some 40 heavily armed members of the ELN stormed Cali's La Maria Catholic Church May 30 and forced shocked churchgoers, including the celebrant of the Mass, into two trucks after exchanging fire with some policemen and two private bodyguards.
At least four hostages, one of the bodyguards and three guerrilla members died in the shootout. More than 50 hostages were later released by the ELN in the surrounding mountains, retaining some 40 hostage, including three Americans.
ELN leader “Gabino” was in Europe at the time, drumming up political support for his movement. Disappointed by lackluster response among the Europeans, Gabino is said to have ordered his followers in Colombia to do “something spectacular, that could be noted worldwide.”
At first sight, the ELN commando who carried out the kidnapping seemed to have fulfilled Gabino's order. Gabino would latter say that he never specifically requested the kidnapping of churchgoers, but it is very likely that, at first, he may have though that his men had succeeded in gaining new attention for his movement.
Nevertheless, it did not take long before the public's surprise turned into outrage.
The Colombian bishops, who have been willing to forgive the fact that the ELN has been the only Colombian guerrilla movement to kill a bishop and destroy several Catholic churches, was pushed over the edge by the disruption of a Mass, the knocking of consecrated hosts to the floor and the kidnapping of innocent churchgoers.
“This brutal attack against peaceful churchgoers cannot find any excuse in political or strategic reasons,” said Cali Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino, for whom the attack “was an act of pure and senseless brutality.”
The prelate also announced the immediate excommunication of guerrilla commando Gabino, a penalty that hours later he extended to all members of the ELN. “They are out of the life of the Church, its graces and God's blessings,” said Archbishop Duarte in a short official statement.
The Colombian Bishops' Conference issued a statement of support for the archbishop's action, saying that the kidnapping of churchgoers during Mass “is an offense to the Eucharist, a blow to the freedom of religion and a violation of the civil populations' rights.”
According to local analysts, the ELN not only miscalculated the forceful reaction of the Catholic bishops, but erred by choosing Cali as the site for the kidnapping. Archbishop Duarte is known as one of the best and more flexible peace negotiators among the bishops, a reputation he earned while serving as bishop of Apartado, a violent region where he helped to bring peace.
“By enraging Archbishop Duarte, the ELN has lost the possibility of having him and his credibility in favor of the dialogue they want to carry out with the government,” said the daily El Expectador .
The ELN is demanding that President Pastrana create a demilitarized zone, similar to one conceded to the FARC, in which the guerrilla group can enjoy a safe haven from which to start negotiations with the government.
According to El Expectador, the chances for the ELN to get a demilitarized zone “is almost zero, especially as regards Church support.” Archbishop Duarte has not only harshly criticized the ELN and its leadership, but has also asked the Colombian government to stop any dialogue.
Ironically, the ELN is regarded as the “Catholic” guerrilla movement because it was founded by several Catholic priests, including the famous “guerrilla priest” Camilo Torres, who died in a confrontation with the Colombian Army in 1966.
Until last year, the ELN was headed by Spanish priest Manuel Perez Martinez , who was defrocked and excommunicated in 1989, after the ELN murdered the bishop of Arauca, Jesus Emilio Jaramillo. Martinez died last year of hepatitis in the middle of the jungle.
The guerrilla group is also known for attracting more radical supporters of liberation theology.
The ELN has expressed sorrow over the excommunication “because it hurts more than 85% of our members, who consider themselves Catholics,” a statement that fueled the outrage of Archbishop Duarte.
Unfortunately for the ELN, that outrage goes beyond Cali and also beyond mere feelings.
The President of the Colombian bishops' conference, Archbishop Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, has announced a hardening of the bishops' position toward the guerrilla movement in general. “The bishops want to see something more concrete, more consistent on the part of the guerrillas to demonstrate they are not against the Colombian people and in favor of peace,” said Archbishop Giraldo.
The bishops' ire was also directed at the FARC. It did not go unnoticed when Archbishop Giraldo said that “peace is not made out of theatrical gestures, nice words ,or the release of white doves,” clearly referring to the opening ceremony of the peace talks between the government and FARC.
On behalf of the Colombian bishops, Archbishop Giraldo has asked both the German government and the German bishops to suspend any support for the ELN, thus contributing to the isolation of the ELN and throwing a damper on Gabino's bid for German political support.
The ELN has offered to turn over all hostages to Bishop Victor Manuel Lopez Forero, of Bucaramanga, as a way to ease tensions with the Catholic Church and show that the ELN still considers the Catholic bishops as key players.
But according to local analysts, it will take more than that for the ELN to recover lost ground and regain the bishop's confidence that they really want to end the conflict. “The ELN kidnappings at La Maria has turned into one of its most politically useless and costly acts,” said the daily El Pais. “They had agreed to release the hostages in exchange for nothing, while loosing even more popularity among Colombians.”
ELN will have to take concrete steps to gain the bishops' good will,” the newspaper added. And El Pais seems to be right.
“If the guerrilla wants to express any regret for its savage action, the only credible way to do so is by releasing absolutely all hostages without any precondition and to stop, from now on, the use of kidnapping as a political weapon,” said Cali's Archbishop Duarte. “Only then, we will be at level zero, at the starting point for any preliminary conversation,” he concluded.
Alejandro Bermudez, Latin America correspondent, is based in Lima, Peru.