Javier’s Unfinished Story
Shortly before going to the dangerous border area between Ecuador and Colombia for the last time, the journalist Javier Ortega was informed about the existence of a secret communication channel between the Ecuadorian police and the drug cartels. He would never be able to write about this subject.
Javier Ortega’s press card was the only personal belonging that was found near his body in the Colombian forest. Although it is somewhat damaged, it is a treasure for his family. His father Galo Ortega came up with the idea of soaking it in bleach for a few days, to get rid of the odor that had seeped into it. The wash gave him a melancholic paleness, but you can still see the journalist’s face and read his first name, Juan, as his family called him: Juan, Juanito, the youngest in the house.
The last time Ortega saw his son, the calendars were showing the 25th of March 2018, and it was 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. “I was feeling kind of weak, so I barely stood up and gave him a hug. I am now left with this grief” he regrets. “Other times, I would hug him tightly, give him a blessing, and kiss him on the cheek.”
The journalist’s father remained in an armchair in his living room; he was suffering from a gallstone, although he did not know this at the time. From where he was sitting, he saw his son leave in a different mood than other times. “I remember that the door was open and he didn’t turn back to look at me, he left worried, he looked sad” he recalls.
Ortega would see his son again, alongside his colleagues from the newspaper on the same trip, Paul Rivas and Efrain Segarra, in a video that FARC dissidents delivered to the police. They were still wearing the clothes they left with, but already deprived of their personal belongings. They were in the middle of what appeared to be coca fields. Javier was wearing his press card around his neck and saying that they were being treated well.
The last mission of the journalists from El Comercio is a story off the record. The sources interviewed for this article are part of the investigation process on the kidnapping and they asked to remain anonymous. The journalist’s notebooks and articles helped complete it.
It was Javier Ortega’s third trip to the border in 2018. In his previous articles, he had written about speedboats loaded with drugs, the presence of Mexican cartels, the attacks of FARC dissidents, and about silence, as the only way to survive on the border. But Javier was never able to publish the information that could have become another one of his exclusive stories: the existence of a secret communication channel between Ecuadorian police and the group led by Walther Arizala, alias “Guacho”.
Javier Ortega was 32 years old. He had started at a local daily of the El Comercio group as an intern, and moved up the ladder all the way to the security department. Narco-trafficking and the northern border of Ecuador were part of his daily life. Since the car bomb explosion in San Lorenzo – a town of 40 thousand inhabitants less than 25 kilometers from the border – in January 2018, Ortega had volunteered to investigate the fabric of complex relations between the criminals, the underprivileged communities, and the state, as a destabilizing factor in the endless spiral of war.
During his last trip, he was accompanied by Efraín Segarra, a sixty-year-old driver and former employee of El Comercio. Segarra had stopped working for the daily in 2013, but he continued to provide transportation services to the newspaper. He was so involved in journalistic work that he owned a camera and was making his own photos, with the approval of his colleagues.
The third member of the team was photographer Paúl Rivas, 45, another El Comercio veteran. He had recently been assigned as a photographer in charge of the border, and he was very enthusiastic every time he went. His colleagues remember his lively spirit, and how he helped them break down barriers in reporting. For the March 25 trip, Javier appreciated going with someone like Paul.
The goal of the El Comercio team was to go to Mataje, a small Ecuadorian village a few steps from Colombia, especially when the river that gives its name to the town dries out in the summer. Three soldiers had died in this part of the border in a bomb explosion on the 20th of March 2018 (a fourth one died a few days later in a hospital in Quito). Many reporters were seeking to reach the site of the attack, to talk with witnesses and see how the local community lived. Javier also wanted to cover the military deployment here and check the rumors about a massive displacement in the village of Mataje, which was brought up by the state-owned newspaper El Telégrafo.
The newspaper was in a state of alert. Two days before Javier left, another group of journalists led by Fernando Medina had returned from the border region with disturbing news. On a road, they found a corpse with marks of blows in the abdomen, guarded by four elusive individuals who didn’t respond to any of their questions.
The story on this event, published on the 24th of March, says that these men were “tall and stout, had shaved heads and naked torsos.” In the same article, inhabitants who preferred to stay anonymous spoke about FARC dissidents who threatened to place bombs in their villages if they helped the Ecuadorian military. According to them, the presence of the corpse was a warning about what could happen to them.
These same people suggested to the El Comercio journalists to identify themselves as press so that the dissidents wouldn’t take them for police agents or members of the military intelligence services. The journalists had press stickers made that they put on their truck for the next trip. An accident insurance took effect “several months earlier” according to Carlos Mantilla, the director of El Comercio, who does not specify a concrete date. Bulletproof vests were planned for this first trip, but they were only bought in time for the March 25 assignment.
The circumstances of Javier’s arrival in Mataje are not clear, access to the village was banned for anyone who was not part of law enforcement or an inhabitant. What is certain is that he and his team passed through the military control point located one kilometer from the village on Monday the 26th of March 2018 at around 9 o’clock in the morning. According to the declassified files that are currently with the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), the soldiers took photocopies of their ID cards and let them through, probably warning them that they were doing this under their own responsibility, as they later declared at the prosecutor’s office. Rear admiral John Merlo, military chief of the area, was also called to testify at the prosecutor’s office to clarify how the journalist passed through. His declaration remains confidential.
Colleagues from the newspaper knew that Ortega did not want to fail his mission. This year, according to his own colleagues, he had traveled fewer times than them to the border and had little luck with the accounts he had collected. This is why this trip was special, and Ortega was determined to travel to Mataje, although he sought the advice of his colleagues in Quito every step of the way. One of the possibilities he considered was to go in by the Mataje river, but after looking into it, he decided otherwise due to the risks involved: it is a route used by criminal groups to transport fuel, food, and drugs.
A toxic environment
Only two days before the arrival of Javier and his two companions in Mataje, a journalist from the state-owned daily El Telégrafo, Christian Torres, had also entered the border village. He had passed through military control with the argument that Rear Admiral Merlo said there was not ban on entering the village. The only advice the soldiers gave him was to remove the yellow license plates that identified Torres’ truck as a state vehicle.
But Torres stayed barely ten minutes in Mataje. He only had a conversation with an elderly man. “I stayed to take care of my animals, so that I could feed them” he told the journalist, and this was told in his newspaper column. Torres did not write however that he and his team rushed out of the village when a motorcycle with two men started heading towards them. It appeared like that they were carrying concealed weapons.
None of the journalists noticed the hostile environment that they had to move around in during their news coverage at the border. Some stores refused to sell them even a bottle of water. Boatmen did not want to transport them. Some were called names, like “toads”, the usual swear word for informers. Others saw children sent over to them to tell them that they should stop filming now. It was clear they journalists were not welcome, but only after the kidnapping and the murder of the El Comercio group did they really begin to share these experiences and assess the magnitude of the risks involved.
Many journalists arrived at the border, especially from Quito, after the car bomb explosion at the San Lorenzo police station on the 27th of January 2018. It was the first time that something this serious had happened on Ecuadorian soil, and the entire country wanted to understand what was going on.
Francisco Garcés, from the television channel Ecuavisa, arrived in Mataje the day after the car bomb explosion. He ran into a group of locals drinking on the street, and they did not even respond to him when he greeted them. He walked around and convinced one person to be interviewed, but in the middle of the filming, a young man approached them and tried to remove the camera. Later, several men surrounded Garcés and threatened him: “You have 5 minutes to leave, otherwise we are no longer accountable.”
In this difficult work environment, the El Comercio team was one of the most present media outlets on the border after the car bomb explosion. Javier Ortega and his colleague from the security department, Fernando Medina, obtained the assignment to report on everything that was happening here. They organized a relay system to follow the operations of armed groups. They reported about the shops they found in border towns where a piece of jewelry was sold for 1400 US dollars or more, and heard the anecdote about 150 bottles of whisky, tequila, and rum, that cost between 180 and 200 US dollars and were consumed at the party of an alleged narco-trafficker. They published more than 20 stories from the border in the first months of 2018.
According to conversations with Javier’s colleagues, he never felt intimidated, he always showed common sense by going to places where the locals told him he would be safe. “You can go to Puerto Rico, but whether they’ll let go pass through here again is another story” said one inhabitant of Corriente Larga, another border village with Colombia. “They don’t know you. They might tie you up while they check who you are” a woman blurted out.
All these are anecdotes were included in a story he published on the 25th of February, in which he also identified 3 armed groups that operated on the Colombian side of the border: The Gulf Clan, the United Guerillas of the Pacific, and the Oliver Sinesterra Front, the organization that would kidnap him exactly one month later.
In Javier’s nearly 30 notebooks that the newspaper delivered to his father, one sees a meticulous journalist: he wrote down all the context-related information that he needed for his reports, and made lists of the sources he planned to speak with. He also jotted down questions, perhaps those he would ask to his interviewees or questions that would constitute the central theme of his story.
In one of his notebooks, which has the notes he took in September 2016, during the tenth conference of the FARC (in Llanos de Yari in Colombia), he talks about the guerillas’ surrender and writes on a loose sheet of paper:
“Can there be a fresh outbreak of violence?”
Two years later, he would be part of the answer.
Javier’s notebooks contain notes on narco-trafficking, on the construction of submarines destined for cartels in the village of Palma Real, on boats with double bottoms to carry cocaine, on shipments that take place at night equipped with GPS, on fishermen who play the role of “lookouts” and those who give the alert. Much of this material was published only two weeks before his kidnapping, when he wrote about the drugs hidden on Ecuadorian beaches, speedboats that arrive at night to pick up cargoes, and about the role of certain inhabitants along the border who keep the illegal groups informed.
One of the people he interviewed explained to him: “They pay them one million pesos (350 US dollars) to be warned if someone is coming or if someone denounces them. They must already know that you are here.”
Ortega also had information on Mexican cartels. At the end of February, he reported – via Facebook Live – on the activities of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, which he said, “makes incursions into Nariño (Colombia)”, adding “some representatives of the cartel could be operating in Ecuador’s border areas.”
But Javier was still waiting to reveal the communication channel between Ecuadorian police and FARC dissidents, information which could have become one of his greatest scoops.
The secret dialogue
This journalistic alliance has confirmed that the Ecuadorian reporter was alerted by one of his sources about discussions between Major Alejandro Zaldumbide – implicated today in several cases linked to the kidnapping and killing of the three members of the press team – and members of the Oliver Sinesterra Front.
After returning from his last trip, he was planning to follow this lead to tell the story, exposing the dangers that loom on the border and on the civilian population. His colleagues at work were aware the existence of these secret conversations, but did not know anything about their contents.
One of them, who prefers remaining anonymous, shared the first statement by the Oliver Sinisterra Front published on the 11th of April and confirmed the murder of El Comercio’s press team. The document, signed in the mountains of Colombia, reveals that “for two months, they had been communicating by telephone” with a representative of the Interior ministry.
This journalistic alliance has verified that the communication channel between Ecuadorian police and the Colombian dissidents did indeed start almost two months before the journalists’ murder.
Major Alexander Zaldumbide, working on the border since 2016, received the first call from the FARC dissidents on the 20th of February from an Ecuadorian phone number. A man with a Colombian accent identified himself as a FARC member and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces from the border.
A few days after this first contact, the officer was authorized by the deputy director general of intelligence, Mauro Vargas, to keep the communication channel open and gain time. In at least eighteen pieces of evidence (which are now with the prosecutor), Zaldumbide details the messages he exchanged with the dissidents between February and April.
In some of them, he is speaking with a militiaman identified as Andrés Sinisterra, and in others, supposedly with Guacho. Time and time again, the dissidents ask for the release of three men who were taken into custody in Mataje on the 12th of January, and demand that Ecuador cancel the agreement signed with Colombia to collaborate in the fight against terrorism. On several occasions, major Zaldumbide offered to speak with his superiors and also promised them to find a government representative to meet with them, but this never took place, and as weeks passed, tensions intensified.
The messages they sent in March, just a few weeks before Javier’s abduction, had an increasingly threatening tone. They were talking about attacking civilians on the border. The raid on the house of Guacho’s mother, which was carried out on the 16th of March, was a game changer. “For every object that you stole from my family, I will order an attack, even for the smallest thing that you took” said a message which was full of insults and spelling mistakes (the following text has been corrected to make it easier to understand the message): “See it as you may. I am losing patience, if we catch any civilians on the border, we’ll kill them (…).”
Zaldumbide promised to organize a meeting, but again, this did not result in anything. And the threats continued. Guacho, or whoever spoke on his behalf, announced every attack that he was planning to make through this communication channel. A few days before the kidnapping of Javier, Paúl, and Efraín, members of the police intelligence services knew that civilians were in Guacho’s sights. Police was also aware, according to an intelligence report dating from February, that Guacho had two houses in the town of Mataje. This information was not shared either with journalists who ventured into the area.
On the 26th of March, at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Major Zaldumbide became the first high-ranking official to find out about the kidnapping through this secret channel. Exactly the same communication channel that Javier was investigating on. We corrected the spelling mistakes to aid to comprehension: “Hello, hello. You will never believe what I will tell you. I hold 3 persons prisoner. 2 journalists from Quito and their driver. Their lives are in your hands. Hello. Hello. What do you say. In 10 minutes answer me or these men will cease to exit”. A picture of the three is attached to the message.
A moment after and on the basis of a request by Ecuador’s Anti-Kidnapping Unit, a second communication channel was opened, led by an official from the Interior Ministry, Carlos Maldonado. This was after a script to obtain the liberation, that did not work, as you know. Major Zaldumbide stopped talking to the dissidents, but on the 15th of April, he received a last message from members of the Oliver Sinisterra Front. It was the confirmation of another kidnapping: that of Oscar Villacis and Katty Velasco, a couple of shopkeepers, who – like Javier, Paúl, and Efraín – were murdered in the forests on the border. According to the prosecutor’s office, three days later, Zaldumbide handed over his phone for the necessary tests.
Six months after the murders, the leads are still blurry. One of the hypotheses of the prosecutor in Ecuador is that Javier went to Colombia to interview Guacho. However, El Comercio denies this and waits for the final investigation report.
César Navas, who was Interior Minister at the time and led the crisis committee created after the kidnapping, stated in an interview to Plan V, published on the 28th of May 2018, that he was not aware of the details of the exchanges between Major Zaldumbide and Guacho. The official, as well as the former intelligence chief Pablo Aguirre, were transferred from their operational units and summoned by the National Assembly to explain the conversations in question.
Meanwhile, families of the three journalists cling to the little information that the government gave them and a few battered objects taken out of the graves of their loved ones. They are closely following the investigation carried out by the Prosecutor’s Office and the IACHR, which are collecting data in Ecuador and Colombia. They still have not returned to the families the personal belongings found in the abandoned truck in Mataje, and these are almost all of Paúl Rivas’ photography equipment, lenses, batteries, a computer, as well as documents of the driver Efraín Segarra. Nor have the families obtained the clothes that the three men left at Hotel San Lorenzo.
Javier’s father says he did not have a tape recorder because he recorded everything on his cell phone, a new one that he had bought 15 days before the trip, and that apart from this, he only carried a notebook in the black backpack that he had with him all the time. None of these objects were found. The only thing that remains from his last assignment is his press card.