Ecuadoran government confirms abduction of three journalists near Colombian border

A team of three journalists from Ecuadoran newspaper El Comercio were abducted on March 26 in northern Ecuador in Mataje in the province of Esmeraldas near the country’s border with Colombia.

The group is made of a reporter, photographer and a driver, according to Ecuadoran freedom of expression organization Fundamedios. It’s an area “where there have been recent attacks attributed to dissident armed groups of the FARC that have already claimed the lives of four Ecuadoran soldiers,” the organization added.

“Unofficially it was learned that the journalists of El Comercio lost communication with the newsroom and their families in the afternoon, so they proceeded to activate search protocols,” Fundamedios said.

Ecuadoran Minister of the Interior César Navas confirmed the abduction on March 27 and said the hostages are “well,” including that the State and kidnappers have made contact, El Comercio reported.

He mentioned that the country reinforced its presence on the northern border in late 2017 and has been carrying out actions like drug and weapons seizures, as well as detentions of members of armed groups, El Comercio reported. According to the minister, authorities have “a record that the three citizens passed by a military checkpoint and received the corresponding warnings about the risk of circulating in this international political boundary.”

“We presume they are in Colombia,” Navas said, according to El Comercio. “We are in permanent communication with Colombian authorities, mainly in the operational area with the police and military authorities.”

According to El Comercio’s reporting on government statements, ministers of Defense and of the Interior, the Attorney General of the State, the Ombudsman and special units of the National Police are working on the case.

Navas emphasized that the government is facing a threat “with an enemy that does not operate in our territory."

The minister also said Armed Forces and the National Police have been told to prohibit citizens who do not live near the international political boundary from traveling there, El Comercio said. He also called on the media to use information responsibly, said all official information would come from the government, and that journalists working in the area must observe reporting protocol within the framework of the State of Emergency.

However, Colombian Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas said on March 28 that there is no information that the three journalists are in Colombia, and that "the investigation is focused in the area where the event occurred, near the river Mataje, in Ecuadoran territory," El Espectador reported.

Colombia "has given all the technical help necessary to find the hostages, since they unfortunately achieved great experience in the country because these crimes happened frequently," Villegas said, according to El Espectador.

More than 190 journalists, photojournalists, camera operators and other communications workers released a 7-point statement in solidarity with the abducted journalists from El Comercio that called for their safe return.

In the letter, the journalists demanded the Ecuadoran State ensure their colleagues’ safety, emphasized the Inter American System’s recognition of the importance of journalistic work in conflict zones, emphasized the duty of the press to report on violence and other issues in Esmeraldas, called on the government to release the names of the abducted journalists, and more.

“With the objective of keeping the citizens informed about what is happening in Esmeraldas, they went to different sectors of the province to a zone that, according to the Government has a high and constant military presence,” the note said. “They were not on vacation, they were not dodging their responsibilities, they were working to inform citizens.”

More than 100 journalists participated in a demonstration of solidarity in the Plaza de la Independencia in Quito, according to El Comercio. According to Fundamedios, another vigil was planned for Guayaquil. Word of the vigils was spread on social media with the hasthag #NosFaltan3 (We are missing 3) and #LosqueremosdevueltaYa (We want them returned now).

Minister of Defense Patricio Zambrano, who was present at the vigil in Quito, said the National Council for Public Security would meet on March 28 to make decisions in the case, El Comercio reported.