SÃO PAULO, Brazil – After a major left-wing guerrilla group in Colombia announced last week it will keep resorting to kidnappings in order to raise money for its operations, peace talks with the government were hit.

However, there’s still room for hope, according to the Church’s major negotiator.

Father Hector Henao, who has been facilitating peace dialogues between insurgent organizations and the Colombian State since the 1990s, told Crux that the insistence of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, or ELN) in keeping abductions and extortions is something that can be discussed at the negotiation table.

“Conversations must be resumed and that issue must be adequately debated. A solution must be found. It’s not impossible to deal with that problem,” Henao said.

Created in 1964, the ELN has been one of the major forces in Colombia’s armed conflict between communist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary organizations, drug cartels, and the State. Over decades, peace dialogues were promoted in order to find possibilities of demobilizing the movement, but all such attempts have failed.

With the electoral victory of President Gustavo Petro, himself a former member of the guerrilla group M-19 (which deposed arms in 1990), the idea of organizing talks with the major guerrilla groups emerged again. The ELN was invited once more for conversations.

Negotiations have been evolving, with the promotion of cyclical encounters between the government’s delegates, the ELN’s negotiators, and facilitators like Henao. A roadmap with a number of critical points to be signed between the two parties was established, as well as a broad ceasefire.

On May 6, however, the ELN publicly declared that it would put an end to the suspension of kidnapping people for money, halted since December 2023. Analysts estimate that the ELN and other guerrilla groups make millions of dollars every month in kidnappings.

The organization blamed the government for its decision, claiming that it failed to set up a fund that would secure the group’s survival without the need to engage in illegal activities. Such a fund, the ELN argued, was one of the conditions established as part of the ceasefire agreement signed in August of 2023.

Petro’s administration replied on the same day that the fund was conceived to finance peace activities and not as “a compensation for the suspension of kidnappings or the interruption of other specific actions included in the ceasefire.”

“I imagine that the ELN has been revisiting all points included in the negotiation, and that theme emerged,” Henao said, adding that the government has continually expressed its repudiation of kidnappings and said that it would not pay any kind of reward for ending illegal actions.

In Colombian public opinion, the issue of kidnappings is a major element in the peace process and must be urgently addressed. For the Church, it’s a central concern as well.

In a press statement released on May 7, the Colombian Church – along with the United Nations’ delegation in the South American country – lamented the ELN’s decisions.

“We reiterate that the deprivation of the people’s liberty has no justification and it’s a deplorable evil that attacks human dignity and hurts the conscience of the entire Colombian nation,” the declaration read.

Henao has been a frequent negotiator during kidnappings. Last year, on November 9, the priest, along with Bishop Francisco Ceballos of Riohacha, was part of the humanitarian mission that welcomed Luis Manuel Díaz after 12 days as ELN’s hostage. The 56-year-old man is the father of Liverpool F.C.’s soccer player Luis Díaz, who also plays for Colombia’s national team. The kidnapping shocked the nation.

“I could feel the family’s sufferings and also the hostage’s pain. It’s an action that has serious moral consequences. It must be urgently revised,” Henao said.

Colombians have also been pressuring the government for a definite solution this problem.

“One of the greatest aspirations of society is that such kidnappings end for good. They’re not acceptable and solutions for those actions to end must be found. I think important steps have been taken in the dialogue table,” the priest said.

The ELN’s announcement came amid a crisis caused by a split in the organization in the southern part of Colombia. The local ELN branch took another name – Comuneros del Sur – and has been pursuing its own peace conversations with Petro’s administration, something that the ELN’s commanders oppose.

In another statement released last week, the ELN accused Petro’s administration of being behind the Comuneros del Sur. It’s part of the government’s effort to avoid negotiating with the ELN and instead pursuing talks with its own “intelligence agents,” the declaration read.

Petro’s administration released a statement on May 11 that said the ELN’s accusations are the result of an internal crisis in the group. The government urged the guerrilla organization to stop promoting violent actions and to go back to the negotiations.

“I hope all that will be sorted out during the upcoming meeting between the government’s negotiators and the ELN in Caracas between May 20-25,” Henao said.

He thinks that the first item of the roadmap, which concerns the participation of society inbuilding peace, will be signed by both parties in the event.