After 221 days of captivity at the hands of Colombian rebels, Canadian mining executive Gernot Wober is free.
He was handed over Tuesday in an isolated clearing in northern Colombia by rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN) to a Red Cross delegation and whisked away by helicopter and then plane to Bogota. “He looks good. He’s suffered a lot, but he’s very excited about his liberty,” said Archbishop Dario de Jesus Monsalve, a member of the delegation.
Mr. Wober, vice-president of exploration for Canadian junior mining company Braeval Mining Corporation, was a bargaining chip in a long-standing battle over mining rights between Colombia’s leftist guerillas and its government. Now, his release could have implications for future peace in a country racked by 50 years of violent armed conflict, by opening the door to allow the ELN, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, to the negotiating table.
The Canadian went from being a pawn in the conflict over resources to a possible lynchpin in negotiating peace with one of Latin America’s oldest rebel groups.
Since November, peace talks have been underway in Havana between Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and government negotiators. The ELN has expressed interest in holding parallel peace talks. But President Juan Manuel Santos repeatedly said the government would not start peace talks with the ELN while it still held Mr. Wober hostage.
Mr. Wober’s release however, “means this impasse will be overcome,” said Carlos Medina Gallego, an author of several books on the ELN and professor of security and defence at the National University of Colombia.
Mr. Wober was abducted Jan. 18 along with three Colombian and two Peruvian geologists in Norosi in a gold-rich region of northern Colombia. The ELN has been historically opposed to foreign exploitation of resources and was against Braeval’s mining project that was still in its exploration phase and not yet producing gold. The ELN released the South Americans a month later, but held on to Mr. Wober. In April, the militia offered Mr. Wober’s freedom in exchange for Braeval handing over the four mining titles that make up the company’s Snow Mine project to local miners.
Braeval announced in July it would abandon Snow Mine and the rebel group declared it would soon free Mr. Wober. But as his captivity dragged on, the Colombian government applied pressure on the rebel group by making peace negotiations conditional on Mr. Wober’s release. On Aug. 1, President Santos said a peace process with the ELN could start as soon as Mr. Wober was released.
The Canadian’s abduction, originally motivated by conflicts over mining, became “an impulse toward a peace process” said Leon Valencia, a former member of the ELN who is now a leading analyst on the armed conflict and director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. “They [the ELN] were pressuring for demands over mining,” said Mr. Valencia, “and now the act of liberating [Mr. Wober] gives them an entry into negotiations.”
Over the last several months, government and ELN envoys have been in exploratory talks to assess the possibility of peace negotiations. While the agenda of any possible talks remains secret, there is little doubt among those who are familiar with the ELN that the group will put mining on the negotiating table.
“Peace negotiations will certainly include mining,” said Archibishop Monsalve, who is part of a small group of religious leaders who have been discussing potential peace talks with members of the ELN in jails and in the regions where they are active.
The ELN has historically called for social justice for the poor and local control over natural resources. Resource-extraction companies have long been considered their military objectives and the ELN made a practice of bombing oil pipelines and extorting oil companies.
The ELN is a Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1964, with liberation theology underpinnings. With an estimated 2,000 fighters, the ELN still manages to exert control in pockets of the country and inflict damage on civilians, the military and infrastructure. Last weekend, the ELN killed 13 soldiers in an ambush.
The area where Mr. Wober was abducted has a long history of armed conflict between guerrilla, paramilitary and government forces in a decades-long battle over gold deposits. The South Bolivar region is home to an estimated 10,000 traditional miners, who feel squeezed out of their livelihoods as the government grants mining concessions, often to foreign companies. Several Canadian companies have title in the region, and there are almost 50 Canadian mining companies in Colombia, estimates Cesar Diaz, the head of a Colombian mining industry group.
The debate over who gets to control mining resources has reached an apex over the last month as thousands of miners have taken to the streets across Colombia demanding the government stop treating them as “illegal” by granting mining rights in huge swaths of the country to foreign companies. President Santos has been aggressively promoting mining as a pillar of the economy.
This debate may reach the negotiating table in Havana, now that Mr. Wober’s freedom has been granted. “If we want to have an integral peace process, the ELN need to be at the table,” said Mr. Valencia.
The FARC and ELN have been bloody foes at times and co-operated at others. In June, the groups released a joint statement from a secret meeting announcing, in a rare moment of unity, that they wanted to work together to include the ELN in the peace process.
In a communiqué published Tuesday, the ELN said it hoped its gesture of returning Mr. Wober would “contribute to a healthy exchange and support for peace in Colombia.”
A spokesman for Braeval Mining said the company is “greatly, greatly relieved” about Mr. Wober’s release, adding that the Toronto-area man is receiving assistance from Canadian consular officials and will return home “at the earliest opportunity.”
“Gernot does have a wife and a young child and we have every expectation that they want to be united as quickly as possible,” Chris Eby said.