The disappearance of several journalists in the troubled zone of Catatumbo -- home to an array of illicit armed groups and major coca cultivation -- has refocused attention on the ELN's practice of kidnapping and this region's central role in Colombia's internal armed conflict.
On May 21, Spanish journalist Salud Hernández-Mora disappeared in El Tarra, a municipality of Colombia's Norte de Santander department, reported Reuters.
Hernández-Mora is said to have been reporting on illicit coca cultivation in the area, which forms part of the region of Catatumbo. Military sources consulted by Semana said the insurgent National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) had Hernández-Mora in their power, although this has not been confirmed. Some reports indicated that she might be with the ELN willingly, as part of her reporting.
Two days later, on May 23, five other journalists in Catatumbo reporting on Hernández-Mora's disappearance also went missing. Three of those reporters soon reappeared, although Diego de Pablos and Carlos Melo, journalists with RCN Televisión, remain unaccounted for.
The other three journalists -- including two from Caracol Televisión and one from Agencia EFE -- said individuals they identified as members of the ELN detained them for several hours. The three were also confident the ELN had detained their two RCN colleagues, although the five had not been together at the time, reported Semana.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Kidnapping
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has announced orders for the army and police to reinforce operations in the area to find the missing reporters. However, authorities have offered no official account or details on what may have happened to the journalists.
InSight Crime Analysis
Catatumbo, which sits along Colombia's border with Venezuela, is remote and difficult to access. This rugged geography has led to a limited state presence, and practically all of Colombia's major armed groups operate in the region. In addition to the ELN, this includes rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), along with several criminal bands (BACRIM, for the Spanish bandas criminales), most notably the Urabeños and Rastrojos.
A major reason Catatumbo has been so attractive for Colombia's armed groups is coca, the base ingredient for making cocaine. In recent years coca cultivation has exploded in Norte de Santander -- particularly in Catatumbo -- given the combined effects of a halt to aerial coca fumigation and pushback by local farmers against crop substitution programs. There have also been indications the FARC are encouraging coca production in anticipation of signing a peace deal with the Colombian government.
Moreover, Catatumbo's location next to Venezuela offers additional advantages for groups engaged in drug production. Venezuela is a major trafficking route for cocaine destined for Europe and the United States and is a source of cheap gasoline, a precursor in cocaine production.
In addition to the drug trade, another criminal economy armed groups in Catatumbo engage in is kidnapping. This is especially true of the ELN, which has long relied on kidnapping as a source of revenue.
Nonetheless, although Hernández-Mora was last seen in a part of El Tarra known as Filogringo, a stronghold of the ELN, the group has issued no public statements claiming to have detained any of the three journalists nor made any ransom demands.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
Nor is it clear the disappearance of Hernández-Mora, or the two journalists from RCN, would be in the strategic interests of the ELN leadership. It was recently announced the ELN and Colombian government would soon start formal peace negotiations after years of preliminary talks. Nevertheless, the ELN's continued use of kidnapping has proved a hindrance to discussions, and President Santos has said the government would not engage in dialogue while the ELN holds kidnapping victims. While the ELN has yet to formally renounce the practice of kidnapping -- something the FARC did in 2012 -- kidnapping several journalists would appear counterintuitive if the group is serious about sitting down for peace talks.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
Conversely, however, if the ELN did indeed abduct Hernández-Mora, it may be holding her hostage in an effort to demonstrate the group's continued strength and to pressure the government to begin formal talks. Such a tactic has recent precedent in Colombia with the FARC's November 2014 abduction of Army General Rubén Darío Alzate Mora, apparently in response to the Colombian government's refusal to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire. That abduction seriously threatened to derail peace talks, with President Santos suspending negotiations, and the FARC soon released the general.
Whether or not the ELN is proved responsible for taking the three journalists, their disappearance speaks to the deeper issue of insecurity in Catatumbo. Indeed, the inability of the Colombian government to penetrate Catatumbo and tackle illicit armed groups has led to the region's central role in perpetuating the country's conflict. Until such effective state presence is established, Catatumbo will prove a perennial impediment to Colombia's quest for peace.