Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas has confirmed that one Spanish and two Colombian reporters who went missing a few days ago are in the hands of the guerrilla group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).
“The ELN is, with all certainty, behind the disappearance,” said Villegas on Thursday afternoon.
Salud Hernández-Mora, a longtime correspondent for Spanish daily El Mundo, along with RCN Noticias journalists Diego D’Pablos and Carlos Melo, were last seen in the northeastern region of Catatumbo around a week ago.
No peace talks can be initiated with the ELN if it retains people against their will
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas
Just a few hours after this first official statement, Frank Pearl, head of the government delegation in the talks with ELN, confirmed that the disappearances constitute an act of kidnapping.
“Following the confirmation by the Defense Ministry of the journalists’ kidnapping, the government delegations in talks with ELN and FARC strongly reject this action and demand the immediate release of the journalists and of all kidnapped individuals.”
Twenty-four hours after President Juan Manuel Santos suggested that Hernández-Mora might be simply working on a story in the jungle, intelligence services reported that she was, in fact, being held by the leftist guerrilla group.
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But both the president and the defense minister avoided using terms such as “kidnapped,” “disappeared” or “forcefully disappeared,” all of which are included as crimes in local legislation – even after the reporters have been missing for five days. “What we can say is that the ELN committed a crime in this case,” said Minister Villegas.
The last time Hernández-Mora was heard from was on Saturday, May 21. A nun from El Tarra, a town in the Catatumbo region where the Spanish reporter was working on a story about illegal coca crops, explained that she saw her get on a motorcycle and ride toward the small town of Filogringo. Two days later, on May 23, a group of Colombian reporters that included D’Pablos and Melo went looking for her, but were then held by civilians who identified themselves as ELN members, according to one journalist who was released the same day.
“In the government’s view, more than a prudential time has elapsed for the return of the three journalists,” said Villegas. “From now on, responsibility for the personal integrity and freedom of these three citizens falls exclusively on the ELN.”
An investigation being carried out by the Colombian army and the police has concluded that the reporters are being held by the guerrilla group’s northeastern front, which operates in the area.
Villegas noted, as did Santos, that “no peace talks can be initiated with the ELN if it holds people against their will.”
Early on Thursday the Colombian executive asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to act as a mediator to facilitate the journalists’ return, as it has in the past with kidnappings by various armed groups.
“We have confirmed today that security protocols are in place in case their intervention is required,” said the defense minister.
On Wednesday night, the army, with help from local authorities and the Catholic Church, created a humanitarian corridor to facilitate the release of the RCN Noticias reporters.
English version by Susana Urra.