Colombia's government has put the head of the army and the head of the national police in charge of the hunt for a missing Spanish correspondent and two local journalists who went missing while covering her disappearance. The air force has also been brought into the search effort.
Salud Hernández-Mora is a well-known journalist in Colombia working for the Spanish paper El Mundo. She was reporting on cocaine trafficking and human rights abuses in the Catatumbo region near the border with Venezuela when she disappeared on Saturday. She had been due to fly back to Bogotá on Sunday evening, where she has been based since 1999. Diego D'Pablos and Carlos Melo were in the same area reporting on her disappearance for the Colombian RCN TV network. Local media said they went missing very close to the place where Henández-Mora was last spotted arguing with an unidentified man and then hiring a motorcycle to drive her to an unknown destination.
On Wednesday morning the police said that the driver for the RCN reporters was also kidnapped and was released the previous afternoon. They said they expected the two journalists to be released later on Wednesday to a special commission headed by a priest. The disappearance of the three journalists has prompted blanket media coverage and rampant speculation that they could have been kidnapped by the National Liberation Army, or ELN — a guerrilla group with a presence in the area.
Members of a group of three other journalists, who were also in the area covering the disappearance of Hernández-Mora, said they were held for several hours by armed men who claimed they were from the ELN. Some local media reported that the freed journalists said the RCN crew were abducted with them and not released. Other outlets said the armed gang told their captives they were also holding the RCN reporters elsewhere. Though the government has been reluctant to use the word "kidnapped," army chief General Alberto José Mejía did suggest on Tuesday that he assumes they were taken by some kind of armed group.
Speaking to reporters in Catatumbo, Mejía stressed that there are two other guerrilla groups operating in the area, alongside the ELN, as well as criminal gangs and drug traffickers. "It is very difficult for us to really work out who has got her," he told reporters, referring to Hernández-Mora. "That's because these groups are partners in drug trafficking and extortion and they share territory."
Mejía insisted that the search team was "the country's best," and said the authorities are distributing more than 30,000 leaflets with pictures of the reporters along with the offer of 100 million Colombian pesos ($33,000) for helping them. But he also insisted that the task would not be easy. "We are not talking about a football field, but one of the most difficult regions for the armed forces to operate in," he said. "There are extreme climates, abrupt terrain, jungle, mountains, and the border with Venezuela."
The disappearance of the three journalists comes as President Juan Manuel Santos is under pressure to justify the priority he has put on negotiating peace with the country's rebel groups. Most observers expect a final peace accord with the largest group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, before the end of the year. The intention to start formal talks with the ELN was announced in March.
The moves towards ending the country's half-century-long conflict, which has left at least 220,000 dead and six million displaced, have been loudly applauded in the United States and in the United Nations. They are more controversial within Colombia itself where many view the nominally Marxist rebels as primarily criminal groups, often involved in drug trafficking. They have also traditionally used kidnapping for ransom to help fill their war chests, as well as strengthen their negotiating positions.
The disappearance of Hernandez-Mora has drawn particular attention because her Sunday columns in Colombia's right-leaning El Tiempo newspaper are often fiercely critical of Colombia's armed groups and the government's concessions to rebels in ongoing peace talks. Her most recent column, titled "The Fallacies of Santos" published on May 15, listed the perceived mistakes made by President Juan Manuel Santos in negotiations with rebels. Meanwhile, freedom of speech groups have jumped to condemn the disappearance of the journalists and call on the authorities to help ensure their safety.
"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," Carlos Lauría of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. "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."
According to Colombia's Foundation for Press Freedom, or FLIP, 232 journalists were targeted through threats or acts of violence in 2015. This marks a 40 percent increase on the year before. Attacks against journalists reached a peak in 2009.
"In the last few days we are in a critical situation in Catatumbo, the freedom of the press has been called into question," said the FLIP's director Pedro Vaca. "The implications are huge. In the first place there is a restriction to the free press. And in the second place you are blocking information from the public because you have a climate of self-censorship of covering the Catatumbo region."
By Alan Hernandez, Joe Parkin Daniels - Vice/May 25, 2016
Photo: El Heraldo
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