Journalists’ killing shows Ecuador, Colombia must act on ‘narco border’
The kidnapping and killing of two journalists and their driver has thrown up an uncomfortable truth for Colombia and Ecuador, analysts say: That their long-neglected border has become a drug traffickers’ nirvana. The two governments sent troops into the dense jungle area to hunt for the killers and reestablish control over a region analysts say has become a key corridor for the supply of cocaine to the United States. Ecuador’s Interior Minister Cesar Navas said Sunday he had sent 550 police and troops, backed by tanks and a helicopter, to take “total control” of the border town of Mataje, where the journalists were kidnapped.
As part of a coordinated operation Bogota sent troops into the Tumaco area on the Colombian side of the border, known as the zone with the world’s highest density of coca-leaf plantations.
The northwestern area is marked by dense jungle, crisscrossed by rivers, leading into the Pacific - an ideal launching pad for seaborne drug shipments and “transnational crime” under the influence of the Mexican drug cartels, said local Colombian military commander General Mauricio Zabala.
This is the fiefdom of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, which claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas and their driver Efrain Segarra. Its leader is Walter Patricio Artizala, better known by his nom-de-guerre Guacho, a former middle-ranking FARC commander known to operate on both sides of the border with about 80 men. “Guacho will fall, sooner or later,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Sunday, confirming the kingpin is on a list of high value targets. “The highly-present Mexican cartels see that one of their main cocaine supply sources is drying up, that is why they are trying to generate violence,” he added.
However, the full-on military approach being undertaken by the governments risks unleashing a fresh wave of violence, according to analyst Fernando Carrion, pointing to the bloodshed in Mexico under Felipe Calderon’s government (2006-2012). In depressed areas like this one “an economic policy is required so that there is substitution of crops, so that the income of the inhabitants doesn’t come from narcotics,” he said. “We have to have a multilateral policy, where there are issues of economy, politics and obviously military issues,” said Carrion, an expert in security at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito.
Government contradictions The situation hasn’t been helped by glaringly contradictory statements coming from each government. Navas, the interior minister, said the journalist team was killed on the Colombian side of the border. “They were murdered on Colombian territory,” he said, tacitly putting the onus on Bogota to find and repatriate the bodies. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said they were killed in Ecuador, where they were kidnapped.
The two governments also differ on the nationality of Guacho, the man they hold responsible for the murders. Each say he is the national of the other country. “The impression is that there has been a kind of hand-washing going on and handing on responsibility to the other side,” said Carrion. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of old diplomatic failings in the region. In 2008, a Colombian attack on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador, without the endorsement of Quito, led to a diplomatic crisis. —AFP