2 more Ecuadorans kidnapped by drug traffickers on Colombia border

Ecuador's Interior Minister Cesar Navas (second left) arrives to offer a press conference on the recent kidnappings in the Ecuador-Colombia border, at the Carondelet presidential palce in Quito on April 17, 2018.
Ecuador's Interior Minister Cesar Navas (second left) arrives to offer a press conference on the recent kidnappings in the Ecuador-Colombia border, at the Carondelet presidential palce in Quito on April 17, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

QUITO, ECUADOR (AFP) - Two more Ecuadorans have been kidnapped on the border with Colombia by the same group responsible for the recent abductions and killing of two journalists and their driver, the government said on Tuesday (April 17).

The latest kidnappings were claimed in a video sent by the same dissident FARC rebels who claimed responsibility for the killing of the Ecuadoran news team, Interior Minister Cesar Navas said.

"Through the channel of communication we have with the so-called Guacho, we received information yesterday evening about a new kidnapping of two citizens," he said.

The latest victims were identified as a middle-aged Ecuadoran couple, Mr Oscar Efren Villacis Gomez and Ms Katty Vanesa Velasco Pinargote, a government statement said.

Describing their abduction as some sort of "macabre game" by the rebels, Mr Navas asked for help in identifying them.

Until now, there have been no reports of anyone missing in the border area.

Guacho, who served as a rebel for 15 years in the now-defunct FARC movement, heads the Oliver Sinisterra Front, the group that kidnapped the two journalists and their driver on March 26 as they were covering a story on violence in the Mataje area.

Their abduction and murder has badly shaken Ecuador, a country that until now has been unaccustomed to the drug-linked violence that has ravaged neighbouring Colombia.

The thick jungle border area is a largely lawless, one where crime gangs operate virtually at will.

A total of 158 families have been forced from their homes in the towns of El Pan and Mataje, according to the government.

Mr Navas said the video, which was sent via WhatsApp, showed a man and a woman in handcuffs, each with a rope around their neck, and flanked by armed men in military fatigues.

They appealed to Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno not to allow them to suffer the same fate as the journalist team.

"Mr President, please help us. Don't let what happened to the journalists happen to us - we have children, we have families whom we visit in Ecuador... Give them what they want so that they release us," pleads the man in the video.

Mr Navas said it was the first time that a "proof of life" video had been shared directly with the government.

Last time, when the kidnappers provided footage of the journalists on April 3, it was sent to a Colombian TV station.

Mr Daniel Ponton, a security expert at Ecuador's National Institute of Higher Studies (IAEN), said it was unclear what Guacho's group was doing, but it seemed to have had "a change of strategy".

"Mr Guacho is not acting alone. I think there is an unseen agenda that is pulling the strings, and the unpredictability of their actions is precisely what gives them strength," he told AFP. "That's what is creating the uncertainty."

The latest abductions came as the rebel group suspended plans to hand over the bodies of the two journalists and their driver, who were confirmed dead on Friday.

As news broke of their deaths, both Ecuador and Colombia sent troops to the border area to hunt down the killers. Quito immediately began efforts to locate their bodies with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But on Monday, Guacho's rebels suspended the process over the ongoing military operation, citing a lack of security guarantees in a statement sent to the ICRC.

"We have taken the unanimous decision to suspend any type of humanitarian activity in relation to the handover of the journalists' bodies," it said.

In response, the Red Cross said it remained willing to facilitate the handover, "provided that there is an agreement between the parties and that the necessary security conditions are in place on the ground."

Reporter Javier Ortega, 32, photographer Paul Rivas, 45, and their driver Efrain Segarra, 60, all worked for Ecuador's influential El Comercio newspaper and were following a story on drug-related violence when they were abducted from the border town of Mataje.

Experts say the northwestern border zone, which is covered with dense jungle and crisscrossed by rivers leading into the Pacific, has become a haven for drug traffickers.