Spanish journalist disappears in area of Colombia controlled by rebel groups

The Spanish journalist Salud Hernández-Mora disappeared on Saturday May 21 at noon in the municipality of El Tarra, while investigating the eradication of illegal crops in the region of Catatumbo in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, according to Reuters.

Criminal gangs and guerrilla groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN by its initials in Spanish), converge in this area, according to the magazine Semana.

It is assumed that Hernández-Mora, who has worked as a journalist in Colombia for nearly two decades and is currently a columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo and a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Mundowas allegedly kidnapped by the ELN, the second largest armed group in Colombia after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC by its initials in Spanish), according to the declarations of the Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish newspaper El País reported.

“We do not have information, nor has anyone claimed responsibility for her kidnapping or for detaining her against her will,” the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, asserted. Citing information from the country’s intelligence service, he added that the last thing that was known about the journalist was that she was picked up by a motorcycle in the municipality of El Tarra in order to go to the municipality of Filogringo, El Tiempo reported.

On Sunday May 22, President Santos announced through his Twitter account that he ordered the armed forces to search for the Spanish journalist with “priority and dedication.” For their part, the Armed Forces and the police officially announced that search protocols had been activated in the search for Hernández-Mora in the region.

Hernández-Mora arrived in the region of Catatumbo on Monday May 16, according to the Foundation for Free Press (FLIP for its initials in Spanish), not only to investigate illegal crops, but also to look into the case of army captain Wilmar Durán—who was sentenced to 28 years in prison for murdering a farmer—and also to investigate the death of “Megateo,” the leader of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL for its initials in Spanish), the third largest rebel group in Colombia and ideologically Maoist.

El Tarra, in the area of Catatumbo is considered a transit area for arms and drugs where the police have no control given the reinforced presence of the ELN and the EPL in the last few months, according to the news site La Silla Vacía.

According to El Tiempo, the director of Fundación Progresar, Wilfredo Cañizares, said that currently 80 percent of the Catatumbo region is covered in coca crops, making El Tarra “a strategic enclave” in terms of guerrilla corridors.

“The lack of concrete information about the whereabouts of Salud Hernández-Mora worries us enormously. I do not want to give my opinion without having specific information, but if our journalists is being held by any group against her will, we demand her immediate release, alive and well,” the director of El Tiempo, Roberto Pombo, declared on the evening of Sunday May 22.

On Friday May 20, the disappeared journalist’s equipment was taken while she was interviewing rural leaders from the region, which is why she stayed in the area to recover them, according to FLIP. Nevertheless, FLIP reported that Hernández-Mora had told Pombo that she would be unable to communicate until Monday.

“Salud has been a fierce critic of my government, of the President’s office, and me, but it is precisely for this reason, for being a person that has criticized the government, that I have given instructions to the Public Force to deploy all of the necessary efforts to locate her, and to liberate her, if she is being held against her will,” the Colombian president said according to El Tiempo.

In recent months, according to reporting from Reuters, the ELN has increased its attacks and bombings of the oil pipelines of crude oil in the country which could be seen as pressuring President Santos into accepting the peace agreements.

The ELN recently joined the peace efforts between the government and rebel groups in the country. However, the Colombian president said that to begin negotiations with the ELN, they must free all of their hostages, according to Reuters. Since the end of 2012, the Colombian government has been engaged in peace negotiations with the FARC.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.