Ground-breaking tool developed to deal with the complexities of an extraordinary crime
The issue of violence against journalists who cover organised crime in border areas requires effective and coordinated transnational cooperation. With this in mind, the IACHR proposed that Ecuador and Columbia provide a joint response in the case of the “El Comercio” reporting team. Many lessons have been learned.
In 2018, the fate of Paul Rivas, Efraín Segarra and Javier Ortega, a reporting team for the Ecuadoran daily El Comercio struck a deep chord in the region. On 26 March the team went to cover a story on the border between Ecuador and Colombia, and never returned. Fifteen days of uncertainty followed, after which the worst of all possible outcomes was confirmed — the three men had been kidnapped, held captive and then assassinated.
The team fell victim to a group called the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra, FOS) that had split off from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FOS’s growing presence in Ecuador was the basis of the story the El Comercio team intended to cover. Mataje, the name of the place where they disappeared, is situated in the jungle 250 km from Quito, a remote area where entry by the media is infrequent and plagued with difficulties.
The impact of the crime was enormous, generating so many civil society mobilisations that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) decided to establish a Special Follow-Up Team (Equipo de Seguimiento Especial, ESE) in July 2018. This historic decision sought to encourage joint efforts and sharing of technical supports in order to clarify the circumstances of the crime.
César Ricaurte, director of the Ecuadoran organisation Fundamedios, considers the establishment of the ESE to be “a pioneering experience that should be viewed as the most significant effort undertaken by the Inter-American Human Rights System.” Ricaurte noted that initiatives such as this seek specifically to “follow, in real time, the police and prosecutorial investigations, as well as other legal processes, in cases involving journalist assassinations in order to stop the cycle of impunity that surrounds crimes against commentators in Latin America.”
The ESE travelled to Ecuador and Colombia, conducting interviews with those involved in the investigations, amassing information and organising meetings.
In December 2019, a year and half after its establishment, the ESE released its Final Report. The team’s recommendations outline their findings, including advances and shortcomings in the investigations into the crime. The recommendations represent the outcome of an innovative and unprecedented process that can be replicated in other situations throughout the region — a process that provided a number of learning opportunities.
One of the most significant outcomes of the ESE’s work is that the theory that the journalists had voluntarily put themselves in danger was refuted. The evidence confirmed that they had requested and received authorisation to enter an area that was under government control.
César Ricaurte highlighted the importance of this conclusion and questioned the line of inquiry employed by the Ecuadoran Public Prosecutor’s Office that, according to Ricaurte, “has more to do with whether the journalist team was seeking an interview with Guacho (the founder of the Oliver Sinisterra Front) and, as such, were putting themselves at risk, or whether there were possible security oversights by El Comercio, or its directors, editors or journalists. We consider these lines of inquiry to be astonishing and condemnable, constituting in and of themselves actions that once again put journalists and their families at risk, re-victimising the victims.”
According to the report, “in the opinion of the ESE, the circumstances verified in both investigations, reasonably considered, rule out the possibility that the members of the journalist team went of their own free will from Ecuadoran to Colombian territory, putting in doubt the hypothesis of a prior agreement or voluntary transfer.”
The report, notes Ricaurte, points to the Ecuadoran Attorney General’s Office leaning toward a theory whereby the kidnapping was planned and carried out solely in Colombia, according to information gleaned in an initial meeting with representatives from the Interior Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office, and reaffirmed during a second meeting. According to Ricaurte, the ESE noted that this position has affected the progress of the investigations in Ecuador and has been reflected in how the investigations have been carried out, in that evidence that could undoubtedly assist in clarifying the circumstances of the assassinations of Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas and Efraín Segarra has not been incorporated into the investigations and has not formed part of the logical line of inquiry.
Essentially, in Ecuador, the kidnapping of the journalist team is being investigated in an isolated manner, failing to follow any line of inquiry that links it to the actions of organised crime groups or any other relationship that might exist with other events involving the Oliver Sinisterra Front: “Those crimes are not part of the logical lines of inquiry in the investigation.”
In contrast, says Ricaurte, “The investigation into the terrorist attack on the nearby San Lorenzo police headquarters (…) includes charges against 27 suspected FOS members for the crimes of terrorism and involvement in organised crime.” This means that, “at least in one of several investigations based in Ecuador involving [the FOS], they perceived a need for the investigation to encompass the activities of this criminal organisation, which threatened to perpetrate a series of serious crimes against police and civilian targets.”
The report noted several times over that the journalists had already covered the topic of drug trafficking and other problems in the area in previous articles, and had travelled to the area a number of times. According to the report, as a member of the El Comercio team covering security issues, Javier Ortega had already travelled to the Canton of San Lorenzo eight times previously.
The report revealed that Ortega first referred to the presence of the FOS and other armed Colombian groups in Ecuadoran territory, along with their activities and interests in the border area, in the 31 January 2018 issue of El Comercio.
Other aspects of the report bring up the issue of the complexities presented by a case that is the result of organised crime groups carrying out their activities across an international border, thus requiring the involvement of security forces and political, administrative and justice officials in both countries. Many of the complexities arise from the great difficulties these state institutions encounter in acting in a coordinated manner and with a view to protection of rights, even as it pertains to inter-institutional collaboration at the internal level.
In its Final Report, the ESE incorporated the views of the two states, Colombia and Ecuador, regarding the ESE’s activities. The Ecuadoran state expressed its “disagreement with the essence of the project” and provided a series of observations about specific aspects that are covered in the report’s text.
For its part, the Colombian state requested that the ESE limit itself to the objectives set out in its work plan and refrain from “bringing forward biased and unsupported criteria oriented toward directing the ongoing investigations and establishing the presumed international responsibility of the state for the events that took place with the members of El Comercio ‘s journalist team.”
Among the key recommendations in the report, the ESE determined that it is “indispensable” to declassify information held by the Armed Forces of both countries (regarding operations in the area during the kidnapping, as well as intelligence or investigative work undertaken to determine the whereabouts of the victims): “Especially since the Colombian government has told the ESE that their Armed Forces undertook military operations seeking information in the area where the FOS operated during the time when the victims were being held captive.”
Another key recommendation of the ESE is the need for Ecuador to move forward with the creation of an Institutional Committee for the Protection of Journalists that would include protection not only for media outlets and their personnel, but also civil society organisations and the families of victims.
The ESE “is of the opinion that the state must establish a comprehensive protection policy for journalists that is consistent with international standards and includes the provision of material and human resources for its functioning.”
For its part, the Ecuadoran state announced an agreement reached on 29 April 2019 for the creation of an Institutional Committee for Protection of Journalists and Communications Workers.
The ESE further recommended that the protective committee in Ecuador together with Colombia’s National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP) should establish a joint protocol for exchanging information about border areas that pose a risk for those practicing journalism. In addition, the protocol should describe protective measures to be undertaken in each country in order to allow journalistic coverage to be carried out within a preventive and protective setting for the purpose of mitigating the risks. The ESE stated that these measures must take into consideration non-interference in the journalism work being undertaken as well as specific risks for particular groups of journalists.
A case of common crime
According to Edison Lanza, the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and a member of the ESE, one of the ESE’s main conclusions is that the Ecuadoran and Colombian Public Prosecutor’s Offices “treated the issue as a regular case involving conventional crime” when in fact “it involved an armed group that was trying to control drug trafficking routes.”
This difference in characterisation hindered treatment of the crime for what it was — a transnational case involving drug trafficking and illegal activities — which would have allowed for the application of certain conventions and agreements, Lanza explained.
Lanza said that the Palermo Convention could have been put into practice, explaining that the convention stipulates the creation of joint teams with much more fluid information exchanges than what has taken place to date.
Lanza also noted that two members of the group that participated in the kidnapping were detained, but Colombia failed to share its information with Ecuador.
Lanza further pointed out that Ecuador has in its possession a number of documented recordings of telephone communications that have not been fully examined because they are not about the specific circumstances that resulted in the unfortunate murders of the three journalists, but nonetheless they took place within the framework of an offensive undertaken by the guerrilla group which placed certain demands on the government.
Lanza stressed the need for the two countries to work together much more and understand that the killing of the journalist team took place within the context of a series of demands and operations undertaken by the guerrilla group.
“We accessed information from intelligence officials three months before the kidnapping in which they were already alerting their superiors, saying that the group would begin attacking civilians as part of their demands for the Ecuadoran and Colombian authorities to halt their operations in the area,” Lanza added.
With respect to the ESE, Lanza said that is was a “new and very demanding” approach and that taking action within the scope of an ongoing investigation carries with it a range of complexities.
“The most important thing is that it gave some satisfaction to the victim’s families, who asked for independent international oversight of the case. Both countries were also very open with their respective security forces, journalists, etc. We did a very complete and thorough job,” he added.
A valuable tool
For Jonathan Bock, of the Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP), the ESE report “maps the way for actions that the governments of Colombia and Ecuador must undertake in order to clarify the circumstances of the crime and provide reparations to the victims. In this sense it is an extremely valuable tool that we, at FLIP, view as a very positive step forward.”
FLIP in Colombia and Fundamedios in Ecuador, both of whom are IFEX member organisations, have been highly involved in the entire process of clarifying what happened and seeking justice for the victims.
For Bock, one of the noteworthy conclusions of the ESE, as mentioned previously, is the rejection of the notion that the transfer of the journalist team from Ecuador to Colombia was voluntary.
“What has in fact been demonstrated is the failure of the Ecuadoran government to implement effective measures to guarantee the journalists’ protection when confronted with the obvious situation of risk that existed at the border,” Bock said.
Bock noted that the ESE report also highlighted the failure of the two countries to take action in a coordinated manner during the kidnapping and throughout the investigations. “This has resulted in a series of contradictions within the processes that must be overcome by the governments of both countries in order to guarantee the victims’ right to the truth,” he stated.
Jonathan Bock highlighted several of the ESE report recommendations that are geared toward clarifying what happened to the journalist team, as well as providing reparations to the victims and ensuring that such an incident never takes place again.
One of the recommendations involves monitoring of the investigation that is being carried out in Colombia. While recognising that progress has been made, the ESE noted the need to delve deeper into documentation about the manner in which the state conducted itself and issued orders within the context of the kidnapping.
“Likewise, the Public Prosecutor’s Office must carry out complementary investigative actions in order to either confirm or reject lines of inquiry, taking into account the contradictions that currently exist,” Bock told IFEX.
Another key aspect of the report is the recommendation to the two countries to designate a special independent and impartial commission to guarantee access by relatives of the El Comercio team members to information that is currently held by various state agencies.
“The ESE’s recommendations represent an opportunity for the Colombian government to demonstrate its commitment to honouring fundamental rights to justice, the truth, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition, all of which assist the victims. This represents an opportunity to adopt measures to ensure that what happened to the El Comercio journalist team never happens again.”
Bock further noted that the governments of Ecuador and Colombia have an obligation to ensure that the families of Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas and Efraín Segarra are not re-victimised. “After the kidnapping and during the investigations the families have had to confront situations in which the states have failed to understand their rights as victims,” Bock said.
The relatives of Ortega, Rivas and Segarra have brought up the urgent need for transparency in the investigations. César Ricaurte emphasised that “a blanket of silence must not conceal a heinous crime that revealed the serious deficiencies and omissions of state authorities responsible both for ensuring the security and wellbeing of the inhabitants of the area and for providing appropriate protection for those undertaking journalism work.”
For Bock and Ricaurte, the ESE’s Final Report, in spite of its importance, represents only a first step in the quest to determine responsibilities for what happened to Javier, Paul and Efraín. The Ecuadoran and Colombian governments must comply with the recommendations of the report and the IACHR, along with its Special Rapporteur’s Office, must continue to actively monitor their progress.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on January 21, 2020.