Murder of three Ecuadorean journalists raises questions about Colombian guerrillas

Relatives of three journalists kidnapped along the border with Ecuador and Colombia arrive to meet with Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno in Quito, Ecuador, Friday, April 13, 2018.
Relatives of three journalists kidnapped along the border with Ecuador and Colombia arrive to meet with Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno in Quito, Ecuador, Friday, April 13, 2018. AP

An 18-day hostage crisis turned into a grim recovery mission Friday, as Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno confirmed that three journalists kidnapped on March 26 along the Colombian border had been executed.

The news came as Colombia and Ecuador pushed back against criticism that they should have cooperated more to win the release of the three men, who worked for Ecuador’s El Comercio newspaper.

At a press conference, Moreno said it appeared their captors never had any intention of releasing them. “The only thing they were trying to do was buy time,” he said.

Authorities believe members of the Oliver Sinisterra Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were responsible for the kidnapping. While the vast majority of the FARC guerrillas demobilized under a 2016 peace deal, there are dissident factions. And the border where the reporters disappeared is a hotbed for coca growing, drug trafficking and criminal activity.

Talking to reporters at the Summit of the Americas in Peru, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos admitted that there were criminal gangs along the shared frontier, but he said they shouldn’t be considered guerrillas.

“The FARC don’t exist anymore,” he said.

“These are drug trafficking criminals, and the full weight of the law and our armed forces will fall on them,” he added.

Colombia’s minister of defense, chief of police and head of the Armed Forces traveled to Ecuador on Friday to coordinate a response. But some felt the action came too late.

Colombia’s Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) condemned the two nations for not cooperating while they had the chance.

The countries did not “work together to win the quick release of the three workers,” the group said in a statement. “In addition, they did not approach international humanitarian groups or other possible mediators, like the Catholic Church, to facilitate their liberation.”

Polivio Vinueza, of Ecuador’s Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion Unit, however, said that his Colombian counterparts had arrived in Ecuador the day after the kidnapping to work on the case, and that the two nations have been in close contact.

While Colombia’s half-century conflict has numbed many there to kidnapping and murder, the high-profile case rattled tiny Ecuador, sparking mass vigils and demonstrations.

Moreno laid the blame squarely on the other side of the border, saying “we’re suffering the consequences of the conflict of our [neighboring] country.” And Vinueza said the ransom calls were coming from Colombian telephone numbers.

Ecuador has put the leader of the FARC faction, whose alias is “Guacho,” on its “most wanted” list and is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest.

The last time the three men — reporter Javier Ortega, 36, photographer Paúl Rivas, 45, and their driver, Efraín Segarra, 60 — were seen alive was on April 3, when a short video of them emerged showing them chained together by their necks. They said their captors were demanding a prisoner exchange and the end of Colombia-Ecuador military operations in the area.

Vinueza said he had a direct line with the kidnappers through April 7 and that the government had assured “Guacho” that they were actively exploring the legalities of a prisoner exchange.

But fears that the men might have been murdered surfaced Wednesday, when a communiqué purportedly signed by the guerrillas announced their execution. Then, on Thursday, Colombia’s RCN news station said it received three photographs that appeared to show the journalists’ bodies.

As reports of their death spread, Moreno canceled his scheduled meetings at the Summit of the Americas in Peru to hurry home, along with family members of the hostages who were also in Peru to raise awareness about their plight. When he arrived in Quito late Thursday, Moreno issued an ultimatum, giving the captors 12 hours to prove the hostages were alive. On Friday, Moreno said the proof of life never came but “we have information that confirms that our countrymen were assassinated.”

El Comercio said the three men were longtime employees who were working on a story about day-to-day life in the poverty- and crime-plagued region.

Fundamedios, an Ecuadorean free-speech organization, said this was the first time in decades that local journalists had been taken hostage, much less killed.

As Moreno announced the grim news, he also said military attacks would resume along the border.

“We’re in mourning,” he said, “but we will not be intimidated."