The high-profile kidnapping and murder of three media workers in March 2018 was a landmark moment for Ecuador, and cast a new spotlight on the violence generated by Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia groups operating along the border. Yet almost one year later, doubts and questions linger about the official version of events and the actions authorities took at the time.
In their new book, “Rehenes” (Hostages), Arturo Torres and María Belén Arroyo explore the question of how and why the three journalists were executed. The reporting required deep investigative work in Ecuador and Colombia, providing insight into the reality on the ground in this strategic border region.
When dissident group from the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas -- known as the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra – FOS) -- launched a series of attacks on Ecuador's security forces, the El Comercio journalists decided to investigate one such attack in the border village of Mataje.
Sometime on their way to the village, the journalists were kidnapped by a group of Oliver Sinisterra Front members in Ecuador. They were later moved across the border to Colombia, according to the book.
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Once the kidnapping became public, the governments of Colombia and Ecuador agreed to halt military operations against the Oliver Sinisterra Front to safeguard the lives of the journalists. However, the investigation by the books authors uncovered several sources who identified secret joint security operations carried out while the journalists were being held hostage. Colombia’s special police forces allegedly deployed to Ecuador and then attacked the Oliver Sinisterra Front in Colombia.
What’s more, an interview with a detained Oliver Sinisterra Front member, Jesús Vargas Cuajiboy, alias “Reinel,” uncovered new information about the journalists' slayings. Reinel was responsible for continually monitoring the hostages as they mobilized, and he claimed the ex-FARC mafia group intended to release the journalists within two days. However, persistent military operations were unnerving the front's leader, Ecuadorean national Walter Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho." Guacho ultimately concluded that it was too much of a risk to keep the journalists alive. The investigation revealed that they were killed on April 7, five days prior to the date when they were said to have been executed.
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The El Comercio murders show how Ecuador’s government was ill-prepared to deal with the sweeping ex-FARC mafia groups that filtered into northern Ecuador in the aftermath of the Colombian government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas.
It wasn't until a surge in violence in early 2018 that Ecuador's government even took steps to address the lack of security along its border, quickly boosting security cooperation with Colombia in order to reinforce the presence of forces there, as well as lay the groundwork for improved intelligence sharing and joint operations.
This also paved the way for the clandestine operations exposed by Torres and Arroyo. With marked improvements in bilateral security cooperation between Ecuador and Colombia, Guacho’s days were always numbered. A joint security operation in December 2018 ultimately allowed Colombian authorities the space to track him down and and kill him.
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While these military actions impacted the Oliver Sinisterra Front and were designed to deal with the crisis on the northern border, Torres and Arroyo conclude in their book that such operations are far from enough to secure this strategic region.
Indeed, while the Oliver Sinisterra Front grabbed the majority of public attention, it isn’t the only criminal organization operating on the Colombia-Ecuador border. Torres and Arroyo noted the presence of other groups, such as La Constru and Los Comuneros operating in northeast Ecuador.
La Constru is a drug trafficking network with roots stretching back to Colombia’s demobilized paramilitary counter-insurgents, which have long operated across the border in southwest Putumayo department.
Police intelligence reports seen by InSight Crime suggest the criminal group is now working with Pedro Oberman Goyes Cortés, alias “Sinaloa,” the leader of a rapidly expanding ex-FARC mafia network. Security forces believe Sinaloa has now crossed the border into Ecuador, and his group has been accused of a deadly attack against anti-narcotics agents in the province of Sucumbios in January this year.
Meanwhile, Los Comuneros is an organization composed of FARC-trained militias, which have established extortion and kidnapping networks. According to Torres and Arroyo’s research, the group is expanding into Colombia’s southern municipalities.
Other criminal organizations, such as Los Comuneros and La Constru, have been able to lurk in the shadows and extend their control over illegal economies while authorities homed in on Guacho and his ex-FARC mafia group. The focus on Guacho and the northwestern border has also had another effect -- Ecuadorean anti-narcotics officials told InSight Crime that drug routes are now migrating east, relocating to the provinces of Sucumbios and Carchi to escape the pressure.