Bogotá, Colombia, April 17, 2018–Authorities in Ecuador and Colombia must conduct a transparent investigation into the kidnapping and killing of an Ecuadoran reporting team in Colombia and ensure all those responsible face justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno on April 13 confirmed during a news conference in Quito that two Ecuadoran journalists Javier Ortega and Paúl Rivas, and their driver, Efraín Segarra, had been killed after they were abducted on March 26 by drug traffickers in the Ecuadoran border village of Mataje.
Moreno’s announcement followed several contradictory statements by the Colombian and Ecuadoran governments about the state of the hostages and whether they were being held in Colombia or Ecuador, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom.
As of today, the bodies of the journalists and their driver were still in Colombian territory, according to President Juan Manuel Santos. News reports said the alleged kidnappers have not yet agreed to hand them over to authorities.
“Recent events raise concerns about the ability of Ecuadoran and Colombian authorities to carry out an effective investigation, which will require high-level coordination and a commitment to transparency,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon from New York. “The two governments must work together to ensure the families and colleagues of Javier Ortega, Paúl Rivas, and Efraín Segarra know what happened to them and see their killers face justice.”
According to news reports, Ortega, a reporter, and Rivas, a photographer, were documenting drug-related border violence for the Quito daily El Comercio.
Colombian and Ecuadoran officials on March 27 said that a group of cocaine traffickers led by the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) member Walter Arizala, known as “Guacho,” took the reporting crew hostage, according to El Comercio.
The FARC is a Marxist guerrilla group that agreed to disarm under a 2016 peace treaty; however, about 1,200 of the FARC’s 7,000 fighters, including Arizala, refused to do so, according to the Bogotá think tank Ideas for Peace. According to news reports, Arizala recently split with the FARC.
On March 27, Ecuador’s Interior Minister César Navas said that his government was in contact with Arizala’s group and that the three hostages were in “good” condition.
On April 3, Bogotá’s RCN TV station broadcast a video of the three press workers shackled together in chains and padlocks looking distraught. In the video, Ortega says that the group’s captors wanted to carry out a prisoner exchange and urged Moreno to comply with their demands. “Mr. President, our lives are in your hands,” Ortega said.
On April 11, RCN received a communiqué which stated that it was from Arizala’s group, saying that the three journalists had been killed amid a military operation. The next day, RCN TV received photos that appeared to show that the three press workers had been executed.
At a news conference in Quito on April 13, Polivio Vinueza, head of Ecuador’s national police anti-kidnapping and extortion unit, said that his government had been in contact with Arizala’s group via sporadic WhatsApp messages between March 26 and April 7 and that Arizala demanded the release of three members of his group, including his sister-in-law who are imprisoned in Quito.
Vinueza said officials were exploring the legalities of releasing the prisoners from Arizala’s group and sent a video message from one of the inmates to Arizala to show that the government was negotiating in good faith. Vinueza also said that the kidnappers demanded that the Ecuadoran government cancel joint anti-drug operations with the Colombian military along the border before the kidnappers cut off communication.
Arizala’s group released another communiqué on April 13, republished by the newspaper El Espectador, which stated that the hostages were killed because the Ecuadoran and Colombian governments refused to halt their military operations against Arizala’s group.
During the April 13 press conference, Moreno offered a US$100,000 reward for information leading to the kidnappers’ capture and said that Ecuadoran authorities “confirmed that these criminals [the kidnappers] never had the intention of handing them back safe and sound.”
Ecuadoran officials later on April 13 arrested nine alleged members of Arizala’s group, which officials say is connected with the kidnapping, according to news reports.