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Colombia: Missing veteran journalist and author feared kidnapped

Thursday 26 May 2016 - 1:00am

26 May 2016

The Colombian authorities must do everything in their power to locate the missing Spanish-Colombian journalist and author Salud Hernández-Mora and two TV reporters investigating her disappearance and bring them back to safety, PEN International said today.

One of Colombia’s best-known journalists, Hernández-Mora went missing while reporting on human rights violations and the cocaine trade in the remote and lawless Catatumbo region in the north-east of the country, near the border with Venezuela, on 21 May 2016. Two journalists for RCN TV who were covering her disappearance went missing in the same area two days later.

It is feared that all three may have been kidnapped, possibly by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, although this has not been officially confirmed.

We are deeply concerned about the disappearance of our colleague Salud Hernándex-Mora in a country where violence against journalists – and impunity for that violence – is a historic problem,’ said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International. ‘We urge the Colombian state to redouble its efforts to bring her and her fellow reporters home safe and sound.

Hernández-Mora, who writes a weekly column for the Bogotá-based daily newspaper El Tiempo and has worked as the Colombia correspondent for Madrid-based daily El Mundo since the 1990s, was last seen in the village of El Tarra in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander Department, according to a Colombian Defence Ministry statement. An eyewitness reportedly saw her arguing with an unidentified man before taking a motorbike taxi to an unknown destination. According to some versions, the journalist was going to recover some equipment, including her camera and mobile phone, which had been stolen the previous day.

The journalist had reportedly been in the area to cover the eradication of illegal drug crops and human rights abuses, including the death of a guerrilla leader, an army officer imprisoned for killing a peasant farmer and a protest over the disappearance of two local residents. She had been due to fly back to Bogotá the day she went missing, according to El Mundo.

Hernández-Mora often reports from conflict areas and is well known for her forthright criticism of the country’s guerrilla groups and the ongoing peace process between the Colombian government and the largest rebel faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Two days later, on the afternoon of 23 May, reporter Diego D’Pablos and cameraman Carlos Melo went missing after setting out for El Tarra from Cúcuta earlier that day, according to RCN TV. They were among a group of journalists sent to the region by international and national media outlets to cover Hernández-Mora’s disappearance.

At least three other journalists were briefly detained on 23 May by individuals who identified themselves as belonging to the ELN and confiscated their equipment. One of the released journalists, Diego Velosa of Blu Radio and Caracol TV, has reportedly said that his captors claimed that they were also holding D’Pablos and Melo. However, the ELN has not publically claimed responsibility for any of the possible abductions.

It is thought that all three journalists may be held in Filogringo in the municipality of El Tarra, where the army has confirmed a clash with the ELN on the night of 24 May.

Catatumbo is said to be one of the most dangerous areas in Colombia currently, rife with guerrilla groups, in particular the ELN, as well as illegal armed drug gangs, all fighting for control of the region. The region is mountainous and mobile phone reception is erratic, meaning that there is a possibility that the three journalists are not detained but merely working in a remote area. On 26 May President Juan Manuel Santos spoke publically of the hypothesis that Hernández-Mora may not have been kidnapped but has gone to meet the ELN as part of a journalistic assignment.

On the orders of President Santos, a large-scale search for the journalists is underway involving over 800 members of the army and national police, including the chiefs of both institutions, as well as the military's anti-abduction unit. The Office of the Attorney General is also investigating the case, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The government of Norte de Santander has offered a reward of 100 million pesos (approx.US$ 32,647) for information leading to the whereabouts of the missing journalists.

On 25 May El Tiempo reported that there was a possibility that D’Pablos and Melo may be fred later that day following mediation by the Catholic Church. This has not transpired, although their driver was released that day and was being interviewed by police.

There is no news on Hernández-Mora. As of 25 May, the ELN said it was waiting for information from its internal “structures” before making a statement, according to El Tiempo.

Santos’ administration was reportedly due to begin negotiations with the ELN as part of a wider ongoing peace process to end the country’s decades-long conflict; it is said to be close to striking a deal with the FARC. Hernández-Mora is reportedly among critics who say that any peace deal is set up for failure as long there is a lack of meaningful state presence and rule of law in many rural areas, which are effectively run by illegal armed groups.

Hernández-Mora has written four books about Colombia. Three are works of non-fiction: La fascinación por la vorágine: Crónicas de un país incomprensible [Fascination for the maelstrom: chronicle of an incomprehensible land] (2002), La otra Colombia [The other Colombia] (2008) and Viajes a la Colombia profunda [Journies to deepest Colombia] (2014).

In 2014, Hernández-Mora published the novel Acorralada [Cornered], the story of a Colombian woman persecuted by the FARC whose family suffers threats, kidnappings and killings. Hernández-Mora has reportedly said that the story, although fictionalised, is true. The writer has also worked for the Free Country Foundation (Fundación País Libre), a support group for the relatives of kidnapping victims.

In lieu of her column, on 24 May El Tiempo published a piece entitled ‘Waiting for Hernández-Mora’, which states:

‘Faced with such a confusing situation, full of conjecture, we can only trust that Salud Hernández-Mora is just carrying out an assignment and will soon be back with her colleagues, to put an end to this uncertainty which is so disturbing for journalism and for a country hoping soon to start building peace on the pillar of freedom of expression and information.

For further information, please contact Tamsin Mitchell, Americas Programme Coordinator