Three journalists are kidnapped in Ecuador, signaling the violence spilling over from Colombia
April 2 at 2:07 PM
At a demonstration in Quito, Ecuador, on April 1, 2018, Galo Ortega holds a picture of his son, journalist Javier Ortega, who is believed to be held along with photographer Paul Rivas and their driver, Efrain Segarra, by dissident Colombian rebels. (Cristina Vega/AFP/Getty Images)
QUITO, Ecuador â" Every night since March 26, when three Ecuadoran journalists were kidnapped near their countryâs border with Colombia, their colleagues have gathered to demand their rescue.
âWeâre missing three! We want them back alive!â they have shouted while protesting in front of the presidential palace in the capital, Quito.
The kidnappings of Javier Or tega, Paul Rivas and Efrain Segarra have hit the local journalism community particularly hard, but they are also the latest signs of the growing wave of violence spilling over the border from Colombia and threatening the security of the entire country.
That surge began after Colombiaâs government signed a peace deal with the Marxist guerrilla group FARC in 2016. As FARC demobilized, other armed groups moved in and began fighting for control of the abandoned territory.
âIt was a border that didn't have presence of the state. It was the FARC that territoriality controlled and administered it,â Napoleon Saltos, a professor of political and constitutional studies at the Central University in Quito, told The Washington Post. âThe moment that the FARC left to negotiate [the peace deal], it was like a state that stopped acting.â
Over the past year, fighting has increased in several states across Colombia, including the state of Narino, which borders Ecua dor. Almost 3,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in 2018 alone, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Now the conflict is moving south across the border. In the Ecuadoran province of Esmeraldas, where the kidnapped journalists were reporting on the rise in violence, the situation has been deteriorating since January, when a bomb exploded at police headquarters in the city of San Lorenzo and injured two officers. Since then, five other attacks have occurred in the province, mainly targeting police and military headquarters, killing three men and injuring several others.
Authorities say both the kidnappings and the violence have been the work of FARC dissident groups, led by a former guerrilla known as âEl Guacho.â But FARC dissidents are not the only ones operating in the area.
Local media recently reported there are up to 12 armed groups in Colombiaâs southern state of Narino, on the border with Esmeraldas, where violence has also increa sed since FARC laid down its weapons. According to Saltos, these include violent paramilitary groups and even Mexicoâs Sinaloa drug cartel.
Even before Colombiaâs peace process, armed groups used Ecuador as a transit hub, trafficking narcotics and gold, weapons and people. This has been especially true in Esmeraldas, where there is direct access to the Pacific Ocean and little government presence.
Esmeraldas, whose population is over 50 percent Afro-Ecuadoran, has long been one of the countryâs poorest provinces. It has few roads, little infrastructure, lacks schools and hospitals, and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. According to Saltos, this has made it easier for traffickers to both recruit and remain undetected.
Paco Moncayo, a former army general and left-wing presidential candidate in last yearâs election, blamed the border problems on âinactivity on the part of the governmentâ during an interview with Quitoâs El Come rcio newspaper on March 28. âThis is a state issue, not a security issue,â he said.
The government is taking steps to address the violence. Last week, President LenÃn Moreno created a body called the National Committee for Integral Security, charged with creating plans for border security and providing more infrastructure and basic services to local communities.
Such efforts have been tried before with little success. In 2014, former president Rafael Correa created a bilateral plan with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to address security and poverty problems in both Narino and Esmeraldas. To this day, both areas remain some of the poorest and neglected regions in either country.
âEverything that is happening on the northern border is something we knew was going to happen,â said Jean Paul Bardellini, a foreign correspondent for NTN 24, an international Spanish-language news channel, to The Washington Post during a protest last Tuesday night. âWh at hurts us is that we lost time, money, and resources, and the border is still unprotected.â
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