Colombian photojournalist escapes kidnappers

EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 29, 2015, reports in the Colombian press said Johanny Vargas issued a statement saying he had not been kidnapped and that his disappearance occurred under personal circumstances. CPJ is investigating.

Bogotá, January 23, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the abduction of Colombian news photographer Johanny Vargas and calls on authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. Vargas, who had documented environmental damage caused by housing construction in the southern city of Popayán, was kidnapped Tuesday but escaped from his captors Thursday morning and is in good health, according to Vargas and news reports.

“We are relieved that photojournalist Johanny Vargas is home safe and sound,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “Colombian authorities must thoroughly investigate his kidnapping, bring those responsible to justice, and ensure Vargas’s safety.”

Vargas, a photographer for the daily Diario del Cauca, told CPJ he was driving his motorcycle to his home in Popayán Tuesday afternoon when two armed men pulled up beside him and forced him into a car.

“They tied my hands and put a hood around my head,” Vargas, 35, told CPJ in a telephone interview. “They said they were going to make me disappear.”

Vargas said that after driving around for hours his captors, who knew his name and profession, took him to a wood hut on the outskirts of the city, where he spent Tuesday night. On Wednesday, his captors loosened the ropes around his wrists to allow him to eat. When they momentarily left Vargas alone in the hut that night, he freed his hands and removed the hood. Vargas then found a piece of machete on the floor, pried loose a board from the wall of the hut and escaped, he told CPJ. He arrived home early Thursday morning and then went to the police.

“My choice was to either allow them to kill me or risk getting killed during an escape attempt,” Vargas told CPJ.

Vargas said his captors did not steal any of his possessions and did not explain why they had abducted him.

In January 2014 he received death threats after producing a documentary and publishing photos in Diario del Cauca about local resistance to a housing project being built on environmentally sensitive wetlands. Vargas said his coverage helped spur community protests and prompted some prospective home buyers to pull out of the project.

Shortly afterwards, two men came to his home and demanded that he stop reporting on the issue or face death, he told CPJ. The following day, he said, he was followed by two armed men on a motorcycle. Vargas reported the threats to the police who kept close watch on his house and the Diario del Cauca offices for the following month.

Vargas considered resigning and for months afterwards stopped reporting on the housing project. He received no further threats. When construction resumed this month, he filed more photos about the project that were published in Diario del Cauca on January 10. Vargas speculated that the article may have provoked his kidnapping. He added that Marxist guerrilla groups and drug-trafficking criminal groups operate in and around Popayán and that it is easy to find criminals to take part in kidnappings and killings.

Colonel Pedro Rodelo, chief of the Popayán police, told CPJ that Vargas was in good condition and showed no signs of physical mistreatment. He said the case is under investigation and no arrests have been made yet. He refused to speculate on the motive for the kidnapping.

Journalists reporting on sensitive issues in Colombia, such as the country’s decades-long conflict, crime, and corruption have faced renewed violence and intimidation in recent years, according to CPJ research.