efe-epaBy Jaime Ortega Carrascal Bogota

Colombian President Ivan Duque said in an interview with EFE that the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group is recruiting minors in Venezuela and has the backing of that neighboring country's leftist president, Nicolas Maduro.

Duque, who will complete one year in office on Aug. 7, said Maduro supports not only the ELN but also dissident elements of a former rebel army - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - that signed a peace deal three years ago with Colombia's previous government and has transformed itself into a leftist political party.

A total of 462 social leaders have been killed during these years of "post-conflict," according to the Ombudsman's Office of Colombia.

Q: You've received a lot of criticism over the implementation of the peace agreement. And last week, during the UN Security Council's visit, the FARC said that your discourse is divorced from the facts. What's really happening?

A: The Security Council, which was here as an independent body, was able to see how we're advancing in what for me is very important, and that's helping people who are in the reincorporation process be successful, people who have genuinely abandoned violence and are on a path to legality.

The Security Council became aware of our productive projects, became aware of the settlements that improve quality of life, became aware of Works for Taxes, became aware of the Development Programs with a Territorial Approach, which show that we're committed to making this reincorporation work.

Q: Regarding the killings of social leaders and former FARC combatants, the Attorney General's Office says progress has been made in investigating and solving those crimes, but the problem remains worrying both inside and outside Colombia. Is your government able to stop the wave of killings?

A: When I became president, we'd had more than 200 recent murders and launched an Action Plan. Thus far this year, we've seen a reduction that may exceed 30 percent, according to reports from the (presidential) human rights counselor, which are based on United Nations information.

Now, that phenomenon occurs in a very small group of municipalities that have been under the sway of illegal armed groups, which are involved in coca-growing or illegal mining and attack those leaders because the leaders want to get their communities out of those illicit economies.

We're committed to ending these actions and being relentless in bringing the criminals behind these killings to justice, just as we did, for example, when we presented a "most wanted" list of 34 heads of criminal organizations responsible for the killings of social leaders, around 18 of whom have already been captured.

Q: Talks with the ELN are currently on hold, and there are signs that the ELN is strengthening.

A: The ELN has a situation and that's that in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, the dictator of Venezuela, is protecting them. He's giving them money and sponsoring their efforts to recruit children to work in illegal mining in parts of Venezuela.

And on top of that, the ELN's leaders are in Venezuela and protected by Maduro. Alias "Pablito" is there. Another leader, "Antonio Garcia," is there. They also have groups of recruiters there, and many of the criminal attacks they're planning in border areas are planned in Venezuela.

I've been clear with the ELN. The ELN can't continue their criminal activities and expect that it will be able to discuss peace with this government.

We looked at what happened under the previous government in 17 months of talks, and we found that in those 17 months 432 terrorist acts, more than 116 killings and more than 12 kidnappings were carried out.

The ELN is a terrorist group, and that's why it's on the European Union's list and the United States' list.

Q: Is that situation you're describing with the ELN in Venezuela also occurring with FARC dissidents?

A: Of course. Because they all end up being the same thing. That dictator in Venezuela is protecting not only the ELN leaders, but also those dissident leaders of the FARC.

It's no secret to anyone that that's happening, and that "Ivan Marquez" is in Venezuela and "El Paisa" is in Venezuela and "Romaña" is in Venezuela. And it'd be no surprise if "Santrich" were there. All indications are that he's there under the protection of the Venezuelan dictatorship.

That shows that they're looking to sponsor a sort of union of criminal clans to perpetrate violent actions in Colombia.

Q: In other words, the solution to the persistent problem of armed conflict in Colombia also depends on a change in government in Venezuela?

A: That would be a great help because the dictatorship in Venezuela - first the "dictocracy" of the era of Hugo Chavez and later Maduro's dictatorship - has been a sponsor of illegal armed groups in its territory.

They harbored the FARC, as well as the ELN, and supported them at the time. Today, they're doing the same with the (FARC) dissidents and with the ELN.

Q: You've stressed that for the first time in seven years there's been a reduction, albeit small, in illicit crop cultivation. Are you satisfied with that result?

A: The issue is not whether it's small or big. The issue is that for the first time in seven years the exponential growth was halted, and there's merit in that.

Of course, we want to reduce it much more, and that's why we have to seek out a combination of tools because those drugs fuel the violence. Those drugs feed criminal groups that attack social leaders. Those drugs also lead to chemicals being dumped in our country's tropical rainforest and incentivize deforestation.

Q: President Donald Trump has criticized your administration in recent months. How is the relationship with the United States?

A: We've seen that the White House has recognized our administration's efforts in the fight against drugs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that, the anti-drug czar (Jim Carroll) has said that, as did President Trump recently.

I think the evidence is what's important. Colombia is a country that's exemplary in the fight against drugs. We don't do it to please anyone, but because it's our conviction. And for every ton of drugs that the US seizes in its territory, we're seizing 18.

That's why the relationship between the US and Colombia is one of cooperation, of joint responsibility, and Colombia now is able to account for more than 50 percent of the drug seizures made in the Western Hemisphere. EFE