Juan Javier Ortega Reyes, a reporter for the Quito daily El Comercio, was killed between April 10 and 12, 2018, along with the other two members of his reporting team, in southwest Colombia. He was 32 years old.
Ortega, photographer Paúl Rivas and their driver Efrain Segarra were abducted on March 26, 2018, by a dissident drug trafficking group in the Ecuadoran border village of Mataje, while on assignment documenting drug-related border violence for El Comercio, according to news reports.
In a news conference in Quito on April 13, Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno confirmed that Ortega, Rivas, and Segarra had been killed by their captors earlier that week.
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.
Ortega had worked for El Comercio for six years, primarily covering politics, crime, and human rights, as well as feature stories on topics like the deportation of Cuban nationals from Quito and disappeared persons in Ecuador, according to the newspaper. In February 2018 Ortega wrote several articles investigating security threats, displacement, and drug trafficking near Ecuador’s border with Colombia, the region where he and his coworkers were later abducted.
On March 27, Colombian and Ecuadoran officials said that the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group of cocaine traffickers led by the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) member Walter Arizala, known as "Guacho," took the crew hostage, according to El Comercio.
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 all three 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 shot dead.
At the 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 were imprisoned in Quito.
Arizala’s group released another communiqué on April 13, 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 $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.
On July 18, then Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced that authorities had captured Colombian national Gustavo Angulo Arboleda, alias “Cherry,” the alleged head of security for the group, according to news reports. At an indictment hearing on July 23, the Colombian public prosecutor’s office said Angulo had met the journalists on the Colombian side of the border after they were abducted in Mataje by other members of the group, and on July 26 ordered him sent to pre-trial detention on charges of aggravated conspiracy to commit murder and aggravated kidnapping, according to reports.
A joint operation involving about 3,000 Colombian and Ecuadoran soldiers wounded Arizala in mid-September 2018, but did not capture him, according to news reports.
According to the Frontera Cautiva (Deadly Border) project, an international investigation of the case published by Forbidden Stories–a network of journalists that continues reporting the stories of other journalists who are threatened or murdered–as of October 2018, there were at least five outstanding arrest warrants linked to the case.
Police and scientific teams recovered the bodies of the journalists and their driver on June 21, more than two months after they were killed, according to the Frontera Cautiva investigation. The bodies were repatriated on June 27, 2018, and buried two days later, according to reports.
On December 21, 2018, Colombian President Iván Duque announced in a televised statement that Arizala had been killed in a joint police and military operation near the border.
On August 4, 2020, the First Municipal Criminal Court of Tumaco in Colombia ordered the release of Angulo from pretrial detention, due to expiration of procedural terms of his process, according to press freedom organizations Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) and Fundamedios.
On March 30, 2021, the First Criminal Court of the Specialized Circuit of Tumaco sentenced Vargas to 28 years and 8 months in prison for his involvement in the killings, according to news reports and a statement by FLIP.
Vargas, a member of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, had overseen the guarding of the three press workers after they were kidnapped, and he later killed them on Arizala’s orders, according to those reports.
The court convicted Vargas of aggravated homicide, aggravated extortion, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit a crime, according to those reports. The first person convicted in the El Comercio case, Vargas confessed and performed "a virtual act of forgiveness” with the victims’ relatives, those reports said.
The victims’ families have continued calling on the Colombian prosecutor’s office to identify all those responsible for the killings, including its planners and mastermind, according to FLIP.
“Despite [Vargas’] conviction, justice has not been served and this ruling in no way indicates that the investigative work by the states, especially Colombia, is done,” a group of victims’ families and their representatives wrote in a statement.
On June 12, 2021, the Second Criminal Court of the Specialized Circuit of Tumaco (Nariño) sentenced Gustavo Angulo Arboleda, alias “Cherry,” to 28 years and eight months in prison for his involvement in the killings, according to news reports. Once the three men were kidnapped in Ecuador and transferred to Colombian territory, they were handed over to Angulo, a member of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, who guarded them and then presented them to the leader of the organization, Arizala, who ordered the killing, according to those reports. The court convicted Angulo of aggravated conspiracy and aggravated extorting kidnapping, according to the same sources.
Angulo confessed and performed “a virtual act of forgiveness” with the victims’ relatives on May 20, 2021, in order to receive sentencing benefits, those reports said.
FLIP said in a statement that the “act of forgiveness” revictimized the relatives, and did not comply with the goals of truthfulness and reparation; the organization asked the same court to annul the sentencing agreement entered into between Angulo and the prosecutor’s office.
“The story [told] by alias ‘Cherry’ showed contradictions and did not show an interest in revealing the truth of the crime … The attitude of ‘Cherry’ did not show any real regret, on the contrary, it expressed his reluctance to fully clarify the truth of the criminal acts,” said FLIP.