The kidnappings of Javier Ortega, 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 Colombia’s 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.
“It was a border that didn't have presence of the state. It was the FARC that territoriality controlled and administered it,” Napoleon Saltos, a professor of political and constitutional studies at the Central University in Quito, told The Washington Post. “The moment that the FARC left to negotiate [the peace deal], it was like a state that stopped acting.”
Over the past year, fighting has increased in several states across Colombia, including the state of Narino, which borders Ecuador. 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.
Ortega, Rivas and Segarra were reporting on that violence when they were kidnapped. On Tuesday, the three men appeared in chains in a proof-of-life video obtained by RCN, a Colombian television network. They listed their kidnappers' demands that Ecuador's government "release three unidentified combatants and end anti-narcotics cooperation with Colombia in exchange for their freedom," according to the Associated Press. “President Lenin Moreno, our life is in your hands,” Ortega said.
Authorities say both the kidnappings and the violence have been the work of FARC dissident groups, led by a former guerrilla known as “El Guacho.” But FARC dissidents are not the only ones operating in the area.
Local media recently reported there are up to 12 armed groups in Colombia’s southern state of Narino, on the border with Esmeraldas, where violence has also increased since FARC laid down its weapons. According to Saltos, these include violent paramilitary groups and even Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.
Even before Colombia’s 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 country’s 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 year’s election, blamed the border problems on “inactivity on the part of the government” during an interview with Quito’s El Comercio newspaper on March 28. “This is a state issue, not a security issue,” he said.
The government is taking steps to address the violence. Last week, President Lenín 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.
“Everything that is happening on the northern border is something we knew was going to happen,” 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. “What hurts us is that we lost time, money, and resources, and the border is still unprotected.”