Three Lives Lost, Many Questions Still Unanswered
The kidnapping and murder of the journalists from the daily newspaper El Comercio, as well as the negotiations led by governments for their release, are still the subject of contradictions, gaps, and questions without answers. Six months after this tragedy, their families have still not been able to reconstruct the story because access to information continues to be denied.
At 6pm on Wednesday the 28th of March 2018, Prosecutor Carlos arrived at the San Lorenzo Naval Base on the north coast of Ecuador, near the border with Colombia, with a mission: recovering the team of journalists from El Comercio, kidnapped 48 hours earlier by the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group formed in mid-2016, involved in drug trafficking and extorsions, and led by “Guacho”, whose Ecuadorian identity is Walther Patricio Arizala Vernaza. In Colombia, Guacho has another identity: Luis Alfredo Pai Jiménes, a former member of the FARC. An official from the Crisis Committee from Quito the capital, asked the prosecutor to wait there for the journalist Javier Ortega, photographer Paúl Rivas, and driver Efraín Segarra, all of whom had been released and would be arriving at any moment. The plan was to accompany them by helicopter to the Tachina airport, in the city of Esmeraldas, from where they would take the plane to Quito. The wait lasted five hours, but the journalists never arrived.
Around 7pm, the daily El Tiempo in Bogota announced the alleged release as a fact: joint pressure from Ecuadorian and Colombian troops had supposedly led to the release of the three hostages. “According to the authorities, the journalists and the driver are in good health and they are with the Ecuadorian army.”
The daily says they got the information from “very credible” military sources and double-check it on the field. Yadira Aguagallo, the companion of late photographer Paúl Rivas, said to this group of journalists she learnt that the information of the alleged release came from the former minister of Defense in Colombia, Luis Carlos Villegas. Despite our requests, the minister did not respond to our questions.
In Quito, some people even started to celebrate, outside the Carondelet Palace, the presidential headquarters. Friends and supporters hugged each other and expressed their joy about the imminent return of the captives.
“Here, everybody was shouting. These were a few seconds of indescribable joy. Then a colleague began to cry. But this didn’t last too long because the journal mentioned two of them being released. We were concerned about the third. Who is it? What happened to him?” said Geovanny Tipanluisa, the editor of El Comercio’s Security Department which Javier Ortega was part of. The Ecuadorian authorities told them they had no information about the alleged release.
While the phones of the reporters, family members, and friends of the hostages continued to ring, the silence of the Ecuadorian authorities started to be worrisome. The next day, César Navas, then the Interior Minister of Ecuador, made a short statement: he qualified this news as irresponsible and denied there was any release. But the facts questioned his words.
More than six months after the kidnapping of Segarra, Rivas, and Ortega, the Ecuadorian government has yet to give clear answers about what happened. Navas, who is no longer in office, affirmed in an interview that the defense ministry had prepared an airplane to transport the three journalists once they were released. President Lenín Moreno was reportedly notified and the Communication Secretariat was organizing a press conference to announce the outcome. In an interview in Paris, former Defense Minister Patricio Zambrano denied that a helicopter and an airplane had been prepared. “False, that’s not true.” After he was reminded that there was a helicopter waiting at the San Lorenzo Naval Base to leave for Tachina, he began to have doubts. “I did not have the information that you are putting forward” he said, “I am not aware of this, for me, it did not happen. A helicopter may have been ready, but that is normal, it is an area where the army is present; however, that this was because we were certain they were going to be released, no, that is not true.” He also never believed that the journalists would be released and never announced that they were in the hands of the Ecuadorian army. “If they had been handed over to the Ecuadorian army, their death would have taken place in Ecuador, not in Colombia” he stated.
In a bid to fill the gaps in the official versions, this collective of journalists also tried to question the Ecuadorian authorities: the former Interior Minister, the Secretary of Communication, the former director of the Anti-kidnapping and Anti-extortion Unit, UNASE. None of them responded.
During the crisis, Navas and his counterpart at Defense, Patricio Zambrano never stopped contradicting each other and being inaccurate. Yadira Aguadallo, Paúl Rivas’s partner, says that when they heard about the alleged release on the 28th of March, Paúl Rivas’s brother, Ricardo, spoke on the phone with Navas, who told him he had been informed by the Colombian media.. Two months later, Navas contradicted himself in an interview with Plan V: “The information came to me through the National Directorate of Intelligence, and we had cross-information with Colombia.” In the same interview, two lines later, he retracted that, and said: “News came out that they were released, and we didn’t know anything. The Defense Ministry (of Colombia, sic) called us to congratulate us. But this never happened. Guacho never wrote to us about the supposed release. On the contrary, he continued putting pressure on us with his messages.” Navas presided over the so-called Crisis Committee, a collegiate body whose purpose was to coordinate actions to protect the lives of journalists. In addition to Navas, there was Zambrano, the Public Prosecutor, the Ombudsman, a representative of the Communication Secretariat, Chief of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces, the National Director of Crimes Against Life, Violent Deaths, Disappearances, Extortion, and Kidnapping, the Head of the Anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion Unit (UNASE) and the case officer. The family of each journalist was also represented on the Committee.
For the prosecutor Carlos to be transferred to the Naval Base, the Crisis Committee’s intervention was needed. If he was present at 6:30pm on the 28th of March, Navas would have known about the alleged release at least three hours before the news came out in El Tiempo. Why then, does the former minister say that he had been informed about it through the Colombian media?
Families of the victims have still more questions. They have doubts about the minutes that emerged from each Committee meeting. For the first meeting which was held on the same night as the kidnapping – Monday the 26th of March – we find the name of Caroline Rivas, Paul’s daughter. But she never attended the meeting: she was informed about the kidnapping on the morning of the 27th of March by Yadira. None of the minutes were signed by the persons present (neither by the authorities, nor by the families of journalists). The absence of signatures is only one of the inconsistencies signaled by the families for the entire duration of the kidnapping; the investigation of the prosecutor’s Office is also full of them.
Aguagallo says on the 3rd of April, eight days after the kidnapping, she, as well as a journalist with El Comercio and a journalist from the daily El Universo, received an e-mail message with two photos: one is the photo of a brief message handwritten by Paul Rivas, and the other of the three kidnapped. There were also two videos. The author of these three e-mails is a person who identified himself with his first and last name, and claimed to be a cameraman at a Colombian television channel. In the message, he said the material came from an unknown number and asked to remain anonymous. We were able to locate this person and confirm that he is the one he said he was. He works in the Colombian media outlet in question. We will not reveal his name to protect his safety. In a brief phone conversation with the team working on this story, the person confirmed having sent the e-mail in question following an express request by Guacho, who contacted him in the Tumaco area where this person works. Under pressure, he sent the message to Aguagallo and the two other journalists. He also said that Guacho’s people sent him more material telling him to broadcast it, but he refused. The threats of Guacho and his henchmen reached such a point that the journalist had to be protected and transferred out of Tumaco. According to the journalist, neither the Ecuadorian nor the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office sought to obtain more information about the material received, Guacho’s threats, or any other information that may have helped clarify the case.
Aguagallo saw the e-mail in the newsroom of the daily El Universo, where they had called her to look at what the journalist had received. She then contacted UNASE to find the origin of the message, which was opened on one of the newspaper’s computers. UNASE came to the premises and carried out some tests. The collective of journalists had access to the results which were written up in a confusing manner. It is clear that it is possible to identify the IP address, which the families believed was linked to a house situated at the center of Quito.
The text says: “Tonight, we proceeded to verify the material received on a piece of paper by the family of Mister Paúl Rivas, it is believed to have come from a house at the corner of Manuel Larrea and Riofrio streets.” Below is a picture of a piece of paper which in fact Yadira Aguagallo and the two journalists from El Comercio and El Universo never received. In the e-mail sent by the journalist in Tumaco was in fact attached a picture of an handwritten note by Paúl Rivas, with no mention of any address. It is not clear what the house has to do with the name of the owner (added by UNASE) but all this was part of the investigation. Despite this, according to a source who has access to the case, Prosecutor Wilson Toainga in charge of the investigation did not order a search of the house, he neither looked into who lived there, nor summoned the owner to testify or find out what connection he had to Guacho.
There is also a text message which was exchanged among member of the Armed Forces. It was sent to a journalist by an unknown source, as proof that there was in fact an attempted release. This collective of journalists received a copy that message. It is written in military jargon and it goes like this:
QTH 7/4 received fry 3 journalists held by illegals 26032018. They will be released at 1K from Mataje and taken to RTNIM and from there AND Mataje – San Lorenzo for final disposal. I confirm that if fry positive I will send the material. Keep the line I have my people involved. QAP 7/3.
QTH refers to a location. The Army General (in passive service) José Luis Castillo says the term “fry” is in reference to the dead journalists and that he wanted to speak about the restitution of the bodies, not about the journalists alive. RTNIM is the Naval Reservoir of the Marine Infantry. A source from the Senain who asked not to be identified, confirms that “fry” refers to the order and that QAP means keep waiting, and 7/3 means cordial greetings.
During that night of uncertainty on the 28th of March, the Colombian authorities had not spoken either. The media was informed that the Ministry of Defense would give a press conference the following day, but at the last minute, it was cancelled without any explanation. The journalists of El Tiempo believed that the information could be related to the release, since the announcement would have occurred minutes after the publication of the news in the paper.
Jhon Torres, editor of the justice section at El Tiempo said he waited until Saturday the 31st of March to receive news of the release. But nothing happened. Still, El Tiempo did not retract its story: its source was “very credible” and had proved this on many occasions. For El TIempo, one element is missing to understand exactly what happened on Wednesday the 28th of March. Yadiro Aguagallo affirms that the information revealed by the Colombian newspaper came from Luis Carlos Villegas, the defense minister at the time. The collective of journalists tried to get in touch with his press service several times to interview him on this subject while he was still in office, without success.
Although it never materialized, the possibility of the captives being released did float around. In the file on this case, the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office has a transcript of the interrogation that was carried out on the 22nd of June with one of the protected witnesses. According to this witness, one of the leaders of the criminal organization and his former chief, who goes with the name of Pitufo or Pitufin, affirmed that the journalists were going to be released. The witness did not mention a date for this supposed release.
None of this was known in Ecuador on the night of the 28th of March. The journalists’ families were gathered at the house of Paúl Rivas’s mother, examining the United Nations anti-kidnapping manual, when they heard about the supposed release through El Tiempo. They immediately contacted the authorities but they only received an answer two hours later. Late at night, around 11pm, when the Prosecutor Carlos left the Naval Base, Navas contacted the families, who did not know that the prosecutor was at the Base, and announced to them that news about the release was false. Why then did the prosecutor spend several hours waiting? Who gave him the order to go to the Naval Base?
The families of Paul, Javier and Efrain requested the documents that establish the actions that the authorities say they undertook. They never received anything. In the middle of August 2018, they asked the authorities to declassify the documents – at first, they were told that there was no significant information in them. And then the interior minister said that many of the agreements were made verbally and that there were no supporting documents.
The families requested, for example, documents that show on what date the Ecuadorian government contacted Monsignor Eugenio Arellano, the bishop of Esmeraldas, who reportedly knew Guacho as a child. The response was, “the meeting with Monseigneur Eugenio Arellano took place by verbal request of the president of the republic on the 11th of April, 2018.” There is no document to support the claim.
Something similar happened with the information that Navas gave in a meeting with foreign media on the 9th of April, when he spoke of four scenarios being contemplated. “The April 9 press conference of the former minister Navas which you make reference to has not been found,” responded the Interior Ministry in an official letter signed by Andrés de la Vega, the deputy interior minister in office.
Six months after the kidnapping and murder of Paul Rivas, Efrain Segarra and Javier Ortega, their families still remember with anguish the day of the trip. On Sunday the 25th of March, the three men left their homes for the border, an area which had been the scene of violence organized by Guacho in recent weeks. They had said goodbye to their families several times, it was not the first time they were going there in 2018.
— Please, this time, don’t go.
Yadira Aguagallo asked her companion, photographer Paul Rivas, on the 24th of March. It was not his turn to travel, but the directors at El Comercio asked him to go. That weekend, the newspaper had published the article about an abandoned body on the road near Mataje, that nobody dared to pick up, which was a supposed warning from Guacho’s group.
It was the latest episode of violence recorded in Ecuador’s coastal villages near Colombia. The first one occurred on the 27th January, when a car bomb exploded in front of the police station in San Lorenzo, there were no casualties. In the second one on the 18th of February, soldiers patrolling the village of El Pan were targeted by gunshots. In March, there were attacks with explosives in the Esmeraldas communities of Borbón, El Pan, and Alto Tambo. The most serious occurred in Mataje when a home-made bomb blew up as a military patrol passed by, and killed four marines: Luis Mosquera, Jairo Sandoval, Sergio Elaje, and Wilmer Álvarez.
Two unusually violent months for the area, and for the country, which had not witnessed the death of a member of the Armed Forces by enemy fire in 20 years.
—I don’t want you to leave, I feel it’s too dangerous.
Yadira insisted, but the decision had been taken. The next day, on Sunday the 25th of March, Efraín Segarra picked up Paúl Rivas and journalist Javier Ortega with his blue Mazda truck.
She got into the vehicle with the three of them, to be dropped at her mother’s house. On the way, Paúl told her that during the week he would be away, she should go look for a tattoo design that would symbolize a strong bond, so that they could both get it done when he came back. She interpreted this as a marriage proposal but she did not say anything. Shortly after, she got out of the truck, shut the door, and waved Paul goodbye. The truck left.
The farewell by Galo, Javier’s father, was more unusual. He was not able to hug him like he normally would when his son left on a trip, because he was convalescing and could barely stand up.
—Then it was time for him to leave. I barely stoop up and gave him a hug. It was not like other times, and then he left. I watched him walk out the door, he didn’t turn back to look at me, he left. I wished him as safe trip, and he left.
Cristian Segarra, himself a journalist at El Comercio, met up with his father Efraín, a driver for the daily’s press teams, on Friday the 23rd. The same day, as his father had not picked up his a phone call, the personnel office called Cristian to ask him whether his father would be interested in a travel insurance for the trip he was going to take two days later. He said yes, and paid for the insurance so that his father would leave “with better ease of mind.”
—I could never even imagine what he would have to go through. I simply said goodbye to my father like I would any other day. I was not fully aware of the danger.
As anyone going to the border does, the three men left Quito taking the Panamericana Norte highway, and then the route that leads to Esmeraldas. Their destination was Hotel El Pedregal, in a suburb of San Lorenzo, where the newspaper’s employees usually stay. They did not know at the time that their investigative work would have a tragic end.
In the hotel’s register, their three names are written by hand. The next day marked the start of their mission that would lead to their death, to be confirmed 19 days later. On Monday the 26th of March, shortly after 7am, as the hotel’s surveillance cameras reveal, they left for Mataje, the border village about 23 kilometers or a 20-minute drive away.
From that moment on, there are only different versions of eyewitnesses, contradictions by Ecuadorian and Colombian authorities, and hypotheses that are insufficient in shedding light on the facts. According to the Ecuadorian interior minister, Efraín, Javier and Paúl left the hotel at 7:10am. At 9:30am, they were at the military checkpoint to enter Mataje, where they were registered, and, according to the authorities, warned about the danger in the area.
Two sources who asked to remain anonymous, familiar with the area and having spoken with the locals in Mataje Nuevo, declared that eyewitness accounts all pointed to the fact that the journalists arrived, they parked their truck, and they left on foot. They apparently passed “to the other side”, to Colombian territory, crossing the Mataje river. There was no violence. The villagers noticed that while they were walking, somebody approached them. They exchanged a few words with him and then followed him.
“They followed this man (…) and got on a barge which took them to the other side. They went without any fear, and when they arrived they started to walk deep into the jungle. At that point, yes, they were being kidnapped. They were being taken elsewhere” declared one source who works in the area, summarizing his conversations with several Mataje residents just after the kidnapping. This source asked that his identity remain anonymous for security reasons.
The Living Dead
On the 26th of March at 5:02pm, the Ecuadorian police chief Alejandro Zaldumbide, who was in charge of logistics in San Lorenzo, received a message from a Colombian number. A person identifying himself as Guacho informed him that he was holding three journalists from El Comercio.
Twenty minutes later, from the same number, Zaldumbide received a first sign of life: at least three photographs of the hostages. The photos have not been made public until today, and are part of the investigation. The three journalists appear with the same clothes they wore when they were leaving the hotel. In the background, there are coca fields. The men look serious, but in their expression, there is no fear, in contrast to the videos that would be sent later.
That night, their families were contacted, but it was only the next day that Ecuador announced the kidnappings to the public. During the press conference, the names of the hostages were not given.
Even today, how the exchanges between Guacho’s group and the Ecuadorian authorities unfolded remains unknown. It is uncertain when and how the response to the first messages was sent. The Ecuadorian government refused to share information concerning these exchanges. The investigation carried out by Ecuador’s Office of the Prosecutor is top secret and access to documents is very restricted.
Members of the Front did not make exceptional demands to Ecuadorian police. Since January, through messages and phone calls, they had been asking Zaldumbide for the release of three of their members in custody in Latacunga, as well as the cancellation of an agreement between Ecuador and Colombia to join forces to fight against drug trafficking. Zaldumbide included all these conversations in police reports that are part of the prosecutor’s file on the attack against the police station in San Lorenzo on the 27th of February 2018. According to an anonymous witness protected by the Colombian Office of the Prosecutor, failing to fulfil these demands led to the murder of Segarra, Rivas, and Ortega.
The same witness also supplied information about where the bodies were buried and where the five explosive devices were placed around the graves. Guacho wanted the release of three of his men: Patrocinio C.P. alias Cuco, James C.A. and Diego T.V., all three captured in an operation in Mataje on the 12th of January 2018, according to the minutes of a hearing that took place in San Lorenzo. At least two of these men have a particular importance for Guacho. Cuco is one of his closest men. The two served together within the ranks of the FARC, and were in charge of transporting drugs and weapons by boat, according to information collected from three protected witnesses in Colombia. In these testimonies drawn up by the Ecuadorian Prosecutor’s Office, the witnesses emphasize that Cuco was the chief of militias in the lower part of the Mira river. He was also one of the main representatives in Ecuador and was in charge of “mobilizing men” in Mataje. The witnesses added that the man nicknamed James was part of Guacho’s security detail. Diego T. V. is not mentioned in the testimonies.
Cuco was so important to Guacho that the car bomb attack on the 27th of February at the police station in San Lorenzo was carried out in retaliation for his arrest, according to one of the witnesses. He also says that three people were kidnapped in view of an exchange two weeks after Cuco’s arrest, but then they were later freed.
The threat of attacks was maintained through the messages and calls to Zaldumbide, in which the release of these three “muchachos” was systematically demanded. Ten days before the kidnapping, the warnings had intensified. A raid by Ecuadorian police on the house of Guacho’s mother in Mataje led to fresh threats against civilians. The kidnapping of the El Comercio team may have been the realization of these threats.
Contradictions, grey areas, confusion, and the erratic handling of information were the backdrop to this tragedy and we still don’t know the truth. They were apprehended in Ecuador, in Colombia, then in Ecuador. How everything happened is not clear. The former president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, surprised the media when the murders were confirmed on the 13th of April, saying:
—These events occurred in Ecuador, the kidnapping and the murders were carried out in Ecuador, by an individual of Ecuadorian nationality.
After obtaining information from the intelligence services, Santos had to recognize that the three men were murdered in Colombia and that their bodies were in that country, in a region where the Oliver Sinisterra Front and other groups involved in drug trafficking were fighting for territorial control.
On the 18th of July, the then Colombian defense minister Luis Carlos Villegas, announced the capture of Gustavo Angulo Arboleda, alias Cherry. According to Villegas, he was the one who intercepted the three men then transferred them to Colombia. A few days later, the prosecutor in Colombia declared during the indictment hearing that the suspect was Cherry, leader of the Front’s kidnapping unit, who received Efraín, Javier, and Paúl on the Colombian side, after Roberto and Cristian abducted them in Mataje. It is plausible to assume that Cherry “ordered to kidnap them and bring them to Colombia”, according to the prosecutor in the investigation.
In his kidnapping trial, Cherry, who is Colombian, is accused of aggravated conspiracy to commit murder, and aggravated kidnapping. He is also named as the author of the kidnapping of two other Ecuadorians, Oscar Villacís and Katty Velasco, two weeks after the kidnapping of the journalists, both also murdered by Guacho’s men. Cherry is also implicated in the death of three Colombian prosecutors on the 11th of July. Cherry denied these accusations. His lawyer accepted an interview for this story two times, then cancelled both appointments. Subsequently, it was impossible to find him.
An Ecuadorian named Jesús Segura Arroyo, alias Roberto, was captured at the beginning of August in Nariño, in Colombia. According to the Colombian defense minister, he was the one who approached the journalists and “tricked them” into following him to Colombia. His implication in the case remains blurry. Presently, he is an inmate in Pasto prison.
A video in which Javier, Paúl, and Efraín appear with the same clothes they were wearing in the first photographs, was also sent, by WhatsApp, according to the report presented by Ecuador to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Javier is the one speaking and he explains that they are well, without giving any details. One person from each family was able to watch this video on the 29th of March. Until today, this video has not been made public. In these pictures, the three men do not have chains around their necks, unlike in a later video where they are chained. Until that point, the Ecuadorian government was saying that they were negotiating with the kidnappers. “We are in a process of negotiations, demands and other…” Navas had stated, when the kidnapping was confirmed. But the reality was different, and dialogue did not start until several days later.
Between the 26th and the 31st of March 2018, the communication channel was still Zaldumbide’s cell phone. According to the report the interior ministry presented to the IACHR, the “exclusive” channel of negotiation was created on the 27th of March, although the chief of the Anti-Kidnapping and Extortions Unit (UNASE), Colonel Polibio Vinueza, declared that it was put in place on the 31st. According to the version delivered by Zaldumbide at the National Assembly on the 20th of June 2018, he handed over the chat conversations that day, after writing a message in which he shared the contact of Colonel Carlos Maldonado Mosquera, advisor to the Ministry of the Interior who would be the negotiator. He handed over his phone to the Prosecutor’s Office the 18th of April.
The negotiation really started when Maldonado joined the game, five days after the kidnapping. The same day, the 31st of March at 4:06pm, a message was received: “Release my ‘muchachos’, if you don’t free them, we’ll kill them today” as the interior minister reports. The response was as follows: “We will examine your men’s legal situation in order to find the best solution.”
According to the interior ministry, on that 31st of March, they approached Cuco and the other two men Guacho mentioned. At 9:00pm that day, an official from UNASE and another from the interior ministry went to the Rehabilitation Center in Latacunga to speak with the detainees and shoot two videos that they sent to Guacho that night. Guacho’s response the next day was bold: “I don’t have time to lose. If you don’t free them, I’ll send you the hostages one by one in a bag, free my men and I’ll return your journalists. “ The officials replied: “We have already talked with one of your men and we are on the right track”.
On the 2nd of April, communication between the kidnappers and the Ecuadorian authorities took a dramatic turn. The Oliver Sinisterra Front passed two videos to a Colombian media outlet. In one of them, Javier speaks while Paúl and Efraín look at the camera. Javier asks for an exchange with the three inmates and the cancellation of the bi-national agreement. “President Lenin Moreno, our lives are in your hands,” he says. His face is different. And in their eyes, there is fear. They have chains around their necks attached with padlocks; they are wearing other people’s clothes, the same that their bodies would be found in two months later.
Wilson Toainga, the prosecutor in the case against Cuco and the two other men in prison, asked the next day to carry on with the trial to reach a verdict. In the meantime, messages from the jungle continued: “I don’t care about killing them. I want to see my men. Send me videos.”
The reason why it was decided that the legal procedure should be completed was that, once the sentence was announced, President Lenin Moreno could grant a presidential pardon to the defendants, as former minister Navas explains. At the time, the possibility of releasing them outside the legal realm was not considered. “If we wanted to pardon them, there had to be a judgment. We had meetings with the Prosecutor’s Office and legal authorities for an accelerated procedure (in which the accuses pleads guilty)”, stated former minister Navas during a press conference on the 15th of April 2018. But the accelerated procedure never happened.
“When are you going to free my men? Otherwise, I’ll kill the journalists. And tell the interior minister that I’m watching closely, that attacks and bombings will continue. Today, at 3pm, you’ll receive the video of one of them dead” read the message that arrived at 9am on the 7th of April, twelve days after the kidnapping. This was the last communication received through the “exclusive channel”.
Without any means of communication through messages and with no progress on the legal front, Navas contradicted himself during a press conference on the 9th of April: he said no process of negotiation was underway and that four scenarios were being considered about possible outcomes. In the worst-case scenario, the three men would not be coming back alive.
Six months have passed since their death, yet it is still not possible to clarify completely the conditions in which the journalists were kidnapped, and who held them captive in the different zones that they were moved to. Reports by anonymous witnesses and other versions of the events received by the Colombian prosecution converge on several points: they were constantly moved from one place to another, to places that do not exist on maps, or to farms and coca fields.
The three men were always escorted, either by several dozen men, or by a few of Guacho’s “muchachos,” always armed. These zones, on both sides of the border, have been abandoned by their respective governments; there are no public services here, only dirt roads protected by a thick vegetation, a hot and humid zone crisscrossed by rivers that allow the illegal groups to move around and transport their cocaine in the direction of the Pacific Ocean.
According to testimonies collected by the Colombian prosecution, the hostages were at one point in the hands of Jesús Vargas Cuajiboy, alias Reinel. On the 7th of July, Reinel became the first person to be arrested in this case, accused of kidnapping with aggravated extortion and aggravated conspiracy. He did not accept the accusations, although he did admit to belonging to the Front. A witness said that the hostages were kept by Reinel, because “Pitufo”, who was responsible for the captives, had an accident, and Reinel replaced him. His lawyer Carlos Viveros denies everything. “He has never been in the presence of journalists, but he did know that they had them in another mission. They link him to the case because, apparently, they stayed overnight in his parents’ house. The house, in the village of El Azucar, was in fact abandoned.”
The investigation led by the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office continues. At the beginning of November, Reinel and Cherry will be presented to the judge. Presently, there are six arrest warrants, three others will be requested, and three other persons will be linked to the case at an undefined future date.
Concerning Reinel, one of the detainees linked to the kidnapping, intelligence services place him in fourth rank in Guacho’s hierarchy, after Fabian or Gringo, and Pitufo or Joaquin, still at large. His lawyer Viveros claims Reinel had no decision-making power.
Almost all the men linked to the Oliver Sinisterra Front were once part of the two FARC groups that operated in the southwest of Colombia, before the guerillas put down their arms: “The Daniel Aldana Mobile Column”, and the “29th Front”. Others were part of the “militias” or groups providing logistical support to the guerillas.
As far as the route that Efraín, Javier, and Paúl followed with their kidnappers, one of the prosecutor’s witnesses said that it was Pitufo who gave orders to watch over them and put in place “special guards” for this. After Cherry told them, “Don’t make noise, and follow me”, the three men passed into the hands of Munra on the Mata de Platano path, on the Colombian side. They were then taken to Briases de Mataje, a farm which is a one-hour walk away. They stayed there for two days before leaving again on foot towards a non-identified place, from which they left by truck for the La Mina area.
From there, they were taken by boat across the Mira river to the Quejuambi farm. They spent three nights in a house and then continued downstream in the direction of La Corozal, “to reach Reinel’s family.” There, they were transferred to another house and then returned to El Azucar to stay with another “guerillero” and his family. It was here, according to the version retained by the prosecutor, that Halida and son Barbas (both had a certain rank in the Front’s chain of command) recorded the video, eight days after the kidnapping, then sent it as proof of life on the 3rd of April. Their journey did not stop there.
Was there any negotiation or not? In an interview with Plan V, Navas confirmed that there was, but, according to him, Guacho never had the intention to negotiate. In the course of this investigation, we contacted Colonel Maldonado through the Secretariat of the Intelligence Services, where he is now acting as Deputy Director General, but we never received a reply. Former minister Navas and UNASE were also contacted, to no avail.
Although Navas raised several scenarios during the negotiation, he ruled out any military operation at the border. The truth is that at one point, the three journalists were taken to the village of Los Cocos, very close to the Mira River. According to a witness from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office, it was then that Efraín Segarra understood that their fate was sealed and asked if they were going to be killed. Perú, one of Guacho’s henchmen, is said to have answered:
—Yes, because the Ecuadorian government did not respect the agreement.
Although our team requested further information from the Colombian Ministry of Defense, the ministry did not even inform the Office of the Prosecutor about the operations carried out during the captivity of the hostages.
One day after Navas’s announcement, in which he denied the existence of negotiations, the possibility of a “pre-legal” exchange was considered. But on the 11th of April, Colombian media published a statement by the Front: Efraín Segarra, Paúl Rivas and Javier Ortega had been murdered. “The government of Ecuador (sic) and the Colombian minister did not want to save the lives of the three hostages. (…) We deeply regret the death of the two journalists and the driver.” Guacho’s men said they spent two months communicating with Maldonado.
The authorities in the two countries have never confirmed the authenticity of this statement (or the previous one) in which the deaths of the journalists were attributed to military operations in the area, which contradicts the version of the protected witness. Sixteen days after the kidnapping, at a meeting at the Palacio de Carondelet, President Moreno asked church representatives to play a mediating role to facilitate the exchange of the three inmates for the three journalists, as he confirmed himself at a press conference held after the announcement of their death. But in less than 24 hours, the photographs of the three bodies had been transmitted to a Colombian media outlet.
Shots fired in the rain
— Our lives, Mister President, are in your hands.
This is what Javier Ortega declared in a video shared by the Front. “Pitufo told them what to say,” one of the anonymous witnesses told the Colombian prosecutor in his testimony. According to the same witness, after the video was recorded, the journalists were transferred to a neighboring farm. They again travelled by road to La Corozal, a coca production area, where they stayed for two days. They were then ordered to move again. They went to Quejambí, and from there two boats left for the Los Cocos area, where their long agony ended: if the testimony of the protected witness is true, they were murdered and buried in a dark and rainy night.
According to the report of the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Colombia, they were killed by 9 mm caliber firearms, the shots were fired behind the skull. However, all three of them had bullet marks in other parts of their bodies. After reading the forensic report, forensics expert Aníbal Navarro ruled out any possibility that the journalists and the driver had died in a crossfire: they were executed in cold blood by their captors.
The witness who described the journey to the spot where Efraín, Javier and Paúl were executed did not mention a date, but it was in the afternoon of the 12th of April that RCN received photos of the bodies riddled with gunshots. The next day, the Ecuadorian government officially confirmed the deaths.
It took the police and scientific teams more than two months to finally recover the bodies, on the 21st of June, thanks to information provided by a source who asked not to be identified when he gave his testimony to the Colombian judicial police. When they found them, Rivas, Ortega and Segarra were no longer wearing the chains they were attached with throughout their captivity. In the pit, a fourth body was found, corresponding to Fernando Vernaza Castro, a cousin of Guacho, murdered on suspicion of collaborating with the Ecuadorian government, as indicated in the Colombian file. As confirmed by Colombian forensic experts, the body is still “unidentified”. This is one of the many questions that both Ecuador and Colombia will have to answer. Meanwhile, the confusing information continues. The most recent one was on the 15th of September. The new Colombian president, Iván Duque, said that Guacho was shot dead in a military operation and fled with serious injuries. Two days later, the commander of the armed forces, General Alberto Mejía, indicated that he could neither “confirm nor interpret” the situation of the most wanted man in both countries.
Following all these events, Yadira Aguagallo said in a radio interview that, for the families, “it is essential” that Guacho be captured alive, but his death should not be “an end” in itself but rather “one more step against impunity”, one more step towards the truth that they are hoping for.