Javier Ortega, 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 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 are imprisoned in Quito.
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 $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 a few days later, 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. As of August 2019, he remains in pre-trial detention.
A massive joint operation involving about 3,000 Colombian and Ecuadoran soldiers wounded Arizala in mid-September 2018, 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–there are at least five outstanding arrest warrants linked to the case.
Police and scientific teams finally 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.