Two TV journalists went missing while covering another reporter's disappearance
All three journalists disappeared in Catatumbo, a region known for guerrillas, crime
First, Spanish journalist Salud Hernandez went missing while working on a story in Catatumbo, a remote region in northern Colombia with a heavy guerrilla and organized crime presence.
Then Colombian TV network RCN said two of its journalists, correspondent Diego D’Pablos and cameraman Carlos Melo, disappeared in the same region while covering the disappearance of Hernandez.
RCN news director Claudia Gurisatti told CNN en Español on Tuesday that a government human rights official first confirmed the disappearance of her network’s journalists.
“They called us and said that, ironically, the group of journalists who were covering what people in the area knew about Salud’s disappearance had themselves been attacked. Their belongings, including their equipment, cameras, computers, communication equipment, telephones, were taken from them,” Gurisatti said.
Catatumbo is an area of nearly 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) in the Norte de Santander department. Illegal crops are Catatumbo’s economic engine, according to Gurisatti. In addition to drug traffickers, the Marxist guerrilla National Liberation Army, or ELN by its Spanish acronym, also has heavy presence in the area. Gurisatti said security forces are “nonexistent” there.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters in Bogota that he ordered an army commander and the director of national police to travel to the region to oversee search efforts. At one point, Santos said, five journalists were missing Monday night, but three were located shortly thereafter.
There are a number of rebel groups in the region, leading to speculation the journalists were kidnapped by a guerrilla group. Officials have so far not cast blame. “For now, our hypothesis at the prosecutor’s office is that this is a disappearance. As soon as we have any real evidence that this could be a kidnapping, we will announce,” said Jorge Perdomo, the national public prosecutor.
The disappearances of the three journalists, if they were in fact kidnapped, may become an obstacle for peace talks between the Colombian government and two guerrilla groups: the ELN and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Putting a halt to kidnappings was one of the conditions the government set for negotiations.
Frank Pearl, the Colombian government’s negotiator with the ELN, said on his Twitter account that “If the ELN kidnapped @saludhernandezm, Diego de Pablos (sic) and Carlos Melo, they have to free them immediately.”
Salud Hernandez traveled last week to the region that borders Venezuela to cover a story about illegal crops. She went missing Saturday.
“She’s a woman who has traveled all of the Colombian countryside, its mountains, its landscapes and valleys … as an average citizen would. She doesn’t bring an advance or production team,” Gurisatti said.
Hernandez files reports about Colombia for the Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo and is known as a fierce critic of Santos and Colombia’s peace process.
CNN’s Richard Beltran contributed to this report.