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Why Colombia’s ELN freed a soccer star’s parents

Research on kidnappings by armed groups explains the impact on Colombia’s peace process.

- November 15, 2023
Colombian soccer star Luis Diaz, in front of Colombian flag.
Luis Diaz (cc) by Steffen Prößdorf; Colombian flag by Nameera, via Canva.

Luis Diaz’s parents are free. On Oct. 28, Colombia’s Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, or ELN) kidnapped Luis “Mane” Manuel Diaz and Cilenis Marulanda, parents of Colombian soccer star and Liverpool forward Luis “Lucho” Diaz. Marulanda was rescued by the Colombian police a few hours after her abduction, but the elder Diaz was held in captivity for nearly two weeks

In the days after the kidnapping, the Colombian police and military launched major search and rescue efforts to recover Mane. The pair had been abducted in the town of Barrancas, near the Venezuelan border. Authorities feared that if the ELN took Mane into Venezuela, recovery would become difficult, if not impossible. Combining ongoing pressure from Colombia’s veteran counterinsurgent forces and open communication with the ELN’s delegation to the ongoing peace talks, the Colombian government, U.N. officials, and the Catholic church brokered Mane’s release. 

While kidnapping remains common in Colombia, this particular hostage incident captured national and international attention. Not only is Diaz a famous and beloved athlete in his native Colombia and around the world, but this kidnapping incident put into question ongoing efforts to end decades of insurgency in Colombia. 

The ELN is a left-wing guerrilla group that has been fighting the Colombian government since 1964, marking it as the longest-running insurgency in the Western hemisphere. Among the Colombian conflict’s dozen left-wing rebel groups, the ELN stands out for its fusion of Marxist-Leninist doctrine with Catholic Liberation Theology – a religious movement focused on economic inequality and liberation of the oppressed. Despite its own involvement in illegal mining, the ELN has made fighting against extractive industries a hallmark of their rebellion. 

What are the ELN’s goals?

Beyond guerrilla attacks on military targets and extractive industry infrastructure, the group is also infamous for kidnapping thousands of Colombians. For decades, the ELN has considered kidnapping as a central tactic of their rebellion, committing what they refer to as retenciones economicas (“economic retentions”), the group’s euphemism for ransom kidnapping. 

In my research on kidnapping in Colombia, I show that ransom kidnapping is not only about funding a rebel organization. These kidnappings also enforce a broader protection racket: Colombians who refuse to pay “taxes” to rebel groups are kidnapped, coercing wider compliance with rebel extortion. 

Why did the ELN kidnap Diaz’s parents? 

Athletes around the world have long been the targets and victims of hostage-taking attacks. Kidnapping has been a significant problem for professional soccer players – especially those from Brazil and Nigeria – whose relatives are kidnapped with staggering frequency. 

In 1994, Edevair Souza de Faria, father of superstar Brazilian striker Romário, was kidnapped in Rio de Janeiro. Refusing the captors’ ransom demand of $7 million, Romário held a press conference to announce he would not play in the upcoming World Cup unless his father was released. Criminal soccer fans allegedly led police to the kidnappers, freeing the player’s father in time for Romário to lead Brazil to World Cup victory. 

But the Romário story is an exception. Kidnappers rarely release hostages – including athletes’ family members – without concession. In 2004, Marina de Souza, mother of Brazilian striker Robson de Souza (“Robinho”), was abducted by two armed men. Six weeks after her abduction, Robinho paid the ransom, and his mother was released. Three years later, Edwin Palacios, brother of Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Wilson Palacios, was kidnapped in Honduras. Though the family paid a £125,000 ransom, Edwin, age 16, was never released. Two years later, authorities found his remains. 

Hostage taking is not just a problem for soccer players. During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the Palestinian militant group Black September infiltrated the Olympic Village and took nine Israeli athletes hostage in a devastating, fatal attack. Last year, WNBA star Brittney Griner was “wrongfully detained” in Russia, ultimately released 10 months later in a controversial prisoner swap.

As for Diaz’s parents, it remains unclear whether they were deliberately targeted for their connection to the athlete. The ELN’s top commander called kidnapping the soccer star’s parents a “mistake.” Still, the group’s Northern War Front claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. In a statement, the front’s commander Jose Manuel Martinez Quiroz wrote: “Once it was reported that [the hostage] was Lucho Diaz’s father, his release was ordered, because he is a relative of the great athlete that all Colombians love. We’ve begun the process of releasing him and we want to avoid any incident.” In other words, the guerrillas claim that once they realized who they were holding, they were determined to let him go. 

What we know about the ELN

On the one hand, there’s reason to be skeptical about that claim, my research suggests. Interviews I conducted with dozens of ELN ex-combatants revealed that kidnapping orders came explicitly through the chain of command, with individual victims selected specifically and deliberately. Former kidnappers stressed that orders always came “from the top,” and that kidnapping “without instruction would cross the line.” 

On the other hand, it’s entirely plausible that the ELN’s senior leadership neither knew about nor condoned this specific attack. The ELN has a decentralized leadership structure, with its seven fronts operating largely independently. Observers also note that such decentralization presents obstacles to peace, as those leaders willing to negotiate a peace deal may hold insufficient sway over some of the more belligerent elements of the organization. 

There is, to my mind, another viable explanation. In addition to their own kidnapping infrastructure, the ELN sometimes buys hostages from criminal gangs, who may abduct more opportunistically. My interviews in Colombia revealed what locals call vende de secuestrada – “selling the kidnapped person,” when criminal gangs take hostages in order to sell them to the ELN and other armed groups. Such dynamics could explain three seemingly contradictory parts of the story: the Colombian police’s initial report that the pair had been kidnapped by criminals; the ignorance of senior leadership about the kidnapping; and the certainty that the elder Diaz was held and released by the ELN. 

What’s happening in Colombia’s “Total Peace”?

The kidnapping is especially significant for its potential effects on the ongoing peace talks between the ELN and the government of Colombia. Late last year, the government and the rebel group announced plans to resume peace talks, which had been suspended since 2019. In pursuing talks, the ELN follows a long line of armed organizations that have signed peace agreements with successive Colombian governments – from the left-wing rebel groups that demobilized in the 1980s and 1990s, to the right-wing paramilitary groups that demobilized in the early 2000s, to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels that signed a peace deal in 2016. 

Upon entering office last year, Colombian President Gustavo Petro – a former left-wing guerrilla himself – announced his plan for Paz Total, or “total peace,” the simultaneous pursuit of peace agreements with all of Colombia’s armed groups. Under the ambitious plan, Petro hopes to sign accords with the dozens of violent organizations still active in Colombia today. 

Despite past peace talks, Colombians still experience extremely high levels of violence. More than 200 human rights activists and social leaders were killed in Colombia in 2022. Kidnapping – once considered “virtually extinct” in Colombia – is once again on the rise. And progress on the talks themselves has been shaky. Last month, the government began talks with the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), the largest dissident group from the FARC; the talks have already broken down

For the ELN – like the FARC before them – abandoning the practice of kidnapping has been a key government demand in peace talks. The group’s failure to release its remaining hostages has been a sticking point in negotiations. The government’s delegation to ELN peace talks released a statement upon Diaz’s release, emphasizing the cruelty and permanent anguish that kidnapping causes to victims and their families. The delegation also stressed that this recent kidnapping has forced the dialogue into a “critical situation,” and demanded that the ELN’s remaining hostages be “immediately released, in safety and dignity.”

Kidnapping attacks have derailed negotiations before in Colombia. How the parties now approach the next negotiation rounds – and whether the ELN commits to releasing hostages at last – could make or break the latest attempt at a long-elusive peace.