Two journalists disappear in Colombia while covering story of missing reporter

Bogotá, Colombia, May 24, 2016– Two Colombian TV journalists may have been kidnapped in Colombia’s dangerous northeast Catatumbo region, their employer said today. Reporter Diego D’Pablos and camera operator Carlos Melo, of Bogotá’s RCN TV station, were investigating the disappearance of Salud Hernández-Mora, a Spanish-Colombian journalist who was last seen Saturday afternoon in the village of El Tarra, according to her employer.

In a statement, RCN TV said that it lost contact with D’Pablos and Melo on Monday and that the pair may have been kidnapped after setting out for El Tarra earlier that day. The village is in a region that is home to two guerrilla groups and drug gangs. The region also has poor mobile phone reception. A journalist who said he was briefly detained by guerrillas in the same region said his captors claimed they were also holding D’Pablos and Melo.

Diego Velosa, a correspondent for Bogotá’s Blu Radio and Caracol TV station, told RCN he was briefly detained along with three other reporters on Monday. Velosa said the group was approached by armed rebels who took them along a trail and held them captive for about six hours. The captors identified themselves as members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the smaller of Colombia’s two Marxist guerrilla groups. Velosa said the captors accused them of spying and of traveling through the region without permission. The reporters were insulted and forced to turn over their equipment. Velosa said that before releasing his group, the rebels said they were holding the two RCN reporters. ELN has not publicly claimed responsibility for any of the disappearances.

“Journalists covering civil conflict, drug trafficking, and crime in this isolated area are fulfilling an essential duty of bringing Colombians news of great national interest, and authorities must ensure they will be able to do it without fear of retribution,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas in New York. “All sides in the Colombian civil conflict must do their utmost to ensure the safety of all media personnel and respect their internationally recognized status as civilians.”

Colombian and international media organizations sent reporters to the Catatumbo region this week following the disappearance of Hernández-Mora. She writes a column for the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, reports for the Madrid daily El Mundo, and is one of Colombia’s best-known journalists. Hernández-Mora was reporting on human rights abuses and the cocaine business in the region. No group or person has claimed responsibility for her disappearance.

The ELN, founded in 1964, finances its war in part by kidnapping civilians for ransom. However, the ELN has been in close contact with President Juan Manuel Santos and his government over the past year and the two sides had been scheduled to begin peace talks. Frank Pearl, the government’s chief negotiator with the ELN, has been trying to make contact with the rebel organization to find out if it is holding Hernández-Mora, but he has received no response, according to news reports.

Santos said today that he has sent the commander of the army and the national police director to the Catatumbo region to lead the search for Hernández-Mora.

General Jaime Vega, police commander in the Catatumbo region, told RCN today: “We don’t know who would be interested in holding Hernández, if in fact she is detained. There are many armed groups in this area fighting over the drug trade, so it’s difficult to know which of these armed groups may have the journalist.”

Colombian journalists have been long been victims of aggression in the country’s armed conflict. Since 1992, at least 47 journalists have been killed in Colombia for their work, according to CPJ research. Although violence has declined since the late 1990s and early 2000s, threats against journalists continue.