UPDATE: Colombian media is now reporting that Spanish journalist Salud Hernandez has been released by the ELN guerrillas. No details yet on other other two detained journalists. Click here for the most recent story.
MEDELLIN, Colombia—Colombian guerrillas from the country's second-largest rebel group have kidnapped three journalists who were reporting in one of the country’s most dangerous war zones, the South American Nation’s Defense Minister reported on Thursday.
In a nationally broadcast announcement, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said that military intelligence reports have concluded “with clarity” that the left-wing National Liberation Army, or ELN, is holding the three journalists. They've been missing for five days.
With peace talks on the horizon, the minister avoided describing the incident as a "kidnapping" —a politically loaded term in Colombia—but said that the rebels had “committed a crime.”
“The safety and liberty of these three citizens now rests exclusively in the hands of the ELN,” Villegas said.
The alleged kidnappings aren’t just an affront to freedom of speech. They also jeopardize peace talks that could help end the hemisphere’s longest-running guerrilla war.
After three years of tense negotiations, Colombia is almost done signing a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC.
So in March, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that formal peace talks with the ELN would also begin sometime in 2016, but only if the guerrillas publicly renounced kidnappings—which they did not.
The disappearance of the three journalists now casts a cloud of doubt over whether the ELN talks will ever happen.
“Pace talks will not be held if the [ELN] deprives people of their liberty,” Defense Minister Villegas warned on Thursday.
The ELN has remained strangely quiet on the matter. The rebels have not confirmed or denied whether they took the journalists.
The group, which currently has around 2,000 fighters, has been known to kidnap oil workers, cattle ranchers and local businessmen for ransom in order to finance its operations. But it has been around three years since the ELN kidnapped anyone for political reasons.
“They have previously kidnapped politicians who they consider corrupt, and put them on trial,” said Adam Isacson a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But the rate of kidnappings has gone down.”
For Colombian media outlet La Silla Vacia, the guerrilla’s silence over the missing journalists could say several things about them.
“This shows us that they are not interested in peace talks…that they don’t understand the impact these actions have on public opinion…or that their central leadership has very little communication with fronts operating on the ground,” reads an editorial on the website, which is known for analysis on Colombia’s conflict.
“Their commanders could still be figuring out whether they have the journalists,” Isacson added.
The missing journalists were last seen in El Catatumbo, an impoverished region with few social services. It's an area where several armed groups are fighting for control over coca fields and extortion rackets.
One the missing reporters, Salud Hernandez, is a prominent correspondent for Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Hernandez has been critical of the peace talks between the government and the FARC.
The other two missing journalists work for RCN, a national television network that has also been critical of the government’s negotiations with guerrilla groups.
According to some local press reports, Hernandez was in the Catatumbo region to work on a story about children who have been kidnapped by the ELN. The RCN reporters went missing after they went into the remote region to report on Hernandez’s disappearance.
International press freedom groups are denouncing these incidents.
"Journalists covering civil conflict, drug trafficking, and crime in this isolated area are fulfilling an essential duty" said Carlos Lauría, Americas coordinator for CPJ, a New York-based Press Freedom group. "All sides in the Colombian civil conflict must do their utmost to ensure the safety of all media personnel and respect their internationally recognized status as civilians."
The FARC has also criticized the alleged kidnappings, in what some people are interpreting as a sign that they are siding with the government’s approach to peace talks.
“Today it was Salud Hernandez, tomorrow it can be any Colombian,” FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez tweeted. “These practices must forever end in Colombia. Peace requires her freedom.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.