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  • ELN leader Gabina and FARC leader Timochenko shake hands during a joint press conference in Havana, Cuba, May 11, 2017.

    ELN leader Gabina and FARC leader Timochenko shake hands during a joint press conference in Havana, Cuba, May 11, 2017. | Photo: EFE

The guerrilla criticized the Colombian government for willingly turning a blind eye to the paramilitary violence targeting human rights defenders. 

Leaders of Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army or ELN, said Thursday they don't believe they can reach a peace agreement with the government before the presidential elections in 2018, but vowed alongside the FARC to continue to work in support of peace under the next administration.

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"The truth is we do not believe it — it is not within our calculations, even if we wanted to — that we could move forward as fast as we all want before the elections," said ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez, known as "Gabino," during a press conference in Havana where the rebel army gathered with leaders of the now-demobilizing FARC to discuss their visions of peace.

Gabino argued the government has not assumed its responsibility in fighting against murders by paramilitary groups, which he called one of the "largest obstacles" to achieving peace.

"We still do not see the will in a head-on fight by the state and the government against paramilitarism," the ELN leader said.

According to official statistics, in the 14 months between Jan. 1, 2016, and March 1, 2017, a staggering 156 social leaders were killed, including Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders. Social organizations have pointed to a rise in right-wing paramilitary activity as the cause between the spike in targeted violence.

Gabino traveled to Havana — the site of four years of peace negotiations between the goverment and the FARC — to hold talks with FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timoleon Jimenez or Timochenko, in a historic first-ever public meeting between the two 52-year-old left-wing guerrilla groups. Dressed in civilian clothes, the two leaders agreed that allow their movements have followed different paths, they ultimately share the same objective of "making the rights of the victims the heart of the pursuit of peace."

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They agreed to continue to work against right-wing warmongering and to protect the country's budding new era of peace, despite the challenges it faces.

"We will try to ensure that the present effort for a political solution commits the different political forces that participate in the debate in the 2018 elections," the two leaders said in a joint statement, "and we will try to avoid that the calls to war by the extreme right reverse this momentum to achieve a new country with equality."

Both the ELN and the FARC were founded in 1964 in different parts of the country. While the FARC emerged directly from rural roots as a group of armed campesinos in the Tolima department, southwest of Bogota, the ELN — inspired by the Cuban Revolution and its iconic leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara— was formed by left-wing intellectuals, students, and Catholic radicals in the northern department of Santander.

The FARC, larger and more well-known than the ELN, signed a final peace agreement with the government last year, bringing an end to more than 50 years of internal armed conflict that claimed the lives of some 260,000 people in the South American country.

The ELN, which is thought to have around 1,500 active members, is expected to resume peace negotiations on May 16 with the government of Juan Manuel Santos in Quito, Ecuador.

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