The kidnapping of a journalist team by a dissident group of FARC (which stands for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in Spanish) on the border with Ecuador represents another complicating factor to Colombia’s road to peace after more than 50 years of armed conflict.
The process has resulted in the turning over of around 9,000 firearms and the lowest murder rate in three decades (24 homicides per 100,000 residents). However, not all of FARC's members have agreed to the peace agreement, and some have banded together into groups that also include narcotraffickers.
So far this year, four bombs and two car bombs have hit Ecuador. In January 2018, Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno declared a state of emergency in several areas of the country due to an attack in the city of San Lorenzo in Esmereldas province on the border with Colombia, which left 14 people injured and caused serious damage to police buildings.
While the Ecuadorian government was taking stock of the damage, social media and the press raised another alarm: two journalists and a driver from El Comercio newspaper were kidnapped on the morning of 26 March 2018 in the town of Mataje, also in Esmeraldas province.
On the day that Interior Minister César Navas confirmed the news, he alongside the defence minister, attorney general, ombudsman, and military and police leaders met with legal representatives of the newspaper and the families of the kidnapped people to advise them about the protocols to follow in these circumstances.
During the press conference in which Navas made the official announcement, he also mentioned the likelihood that those kidnapped would be in Colombia.
According to Colombian military commander General Alberto Mejía, the man behind the kidnapping is the leader of the FARC dissidents in southeast Colombia, Walter Patricio Artízala Vernaza, also known as “Guacho”. The general told RCN Radio that intelligence he had received showed that the guerrilla fighter and men under his command are those holding the Ecuadorians.
Interior Minister Navas told a local radio station that surveillance operations and raids in the border area had upset the dissident FARC groups (which are deemed illegal by the state) and that the kidnappers “are not looking for money [and have not] asked for ransom”.
Collateral damage of a peace process?
César Cedeño, an expert in military operations, analyzed the implications of these incidents. He argued that the case of El Salvador is useful to understand the violence which has come into Ecuador, and that the groups still in the border region should be viewed as “hybrids of criminal and insurgent organizations”:
En la guerra civil salvadoreña pasó lo mismo: las maras [o pandillas] que hoy día son tan famosas por su incidencia en la seguridad ciudadana de América Central y Estados Unidos, fueron producto de ese proceso de paz. Exguerrilleros del Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional que no se desmovilizaron, usaron sus habilidades de combate para dedicarse a actividades criminales. Eso son las maras.
The same happened in the Salvadorian civil war: the maras [gangs] which today are so infamous for their impact on citizens’ safety in Central America and the United States, were a product of that peace process. Ex-guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation who did not demobilize used their combat skills to dedicate themselves to criminal activity. These are the maras
Ese caso muestra que, en efecto, esto es lo que puede estar pasando en el proceso de paz colombiano. Es probable que estos remanentes de las FARC hayan tomado una decisión simplemente racional para no desmovilizarse: un cálculo de utilidades esperadas versus costos esperados. Si se mantenían en la insurgencia, los retornos podían ser muy importantes en términos del comercio de estupefacientes y armas. El costo es el que ya tenían: el acoso constante del ejército y la policía colombiana.
That case shows that, in effect, this is what could be happening in the Colombian peace process. It is likely that these remnants of FARC have taken a simply rational decision to not demobilize: a calculation of expected profits versus expected costs. If they stay as an insurgency, the returns could be very significant in terms of the narcotics and weapons trade. The cost is what they face already: the constant harrying of the Colombian army and police
#NosFaltan3 (We are missing 3)
Since the announcement of the kidnapping, journalists from all sorts of media organizations gathered together on the night of 27 March for a vigil in Quito’s Plaza Grande to demand the liberation of their colleagues. They asked the government to do everything possible to ensure the two journalists and driver with El Comercio come back safely to their families.
On social media, the hashtag #NosFaltan3, which means “We are missing three”, was the most popular for discussion of the topic:
— El Comercio (@elcomerciocom) 28 de marzo de 2018
The Defence Minister, Patricio Zambrano, at the vigil in Quito’s Plaza Grande
Un plantón silencioso, triste… muy sentido. Esta noche, periodistas y amigos de tres colegas secuestrados nos reunimos en la Plaza Grande. #NosFaltan3 y #LosQueremosDeVuelta@lahoraecuadorpic.twitter.com/wTUKQ6NEQD
— Leonardo G. Ponce (@Leonardogponce) 28 de marzo de 2018
A silent, sad vigil…strongly felt. Tonight, we journalists and friends of the three kidnapped colleagues meet at Plaza Grande
Thinking of the wider impact, Ecuadorian novelist and journalist Eduardo Varas reflected on a conversation with journalism students about the impact that the incident could eventually have, not only regarding the right to peace and security in Ecuador, but also for those who wish to work as journalists:
Hablamos sobre que el mejor periodista es el que duda y el que busca resolver esa duda a través de la investigación. Y me dijeron que eso también significaba que ejercer el oficio nos expone como personas. No lo había pensado así. No en ese nivel. La realidad más cercana no nos daba razones para verlo de esa manera. ¿Se puede enseñar periodismo en estas circunstancias? ¿Cómo quitar el temor en el rostro de jóvenes que te miran como si no pudieran creer lo que está pasando? No lo sé.
We spoke about how the best journalist doubts and tries to resolve this doubt through investigation. And they told me that this also means that working in this job exposes us to risk. I had not thought about it like that. Not on that level. The more immediate reality had not given us any reason to view it in that way. Can journalism be taught in these circumstances? How can you remove the fear from the faces of young people looking at you as if they cannot believe what is happening? I don’t know.