In a press conference Tuesday the Ecuadorean government confirmed that three local journalists were kidnapped Monday in the northern-border town of Mataje, near Colombia, while assuring that the reporters are alive and well without providing any more information.
The journalists were reporting on the attacks against state security forces that have occured in the province of Esmeraldas since late January. The government announced they have “activated all the security protocols and initiated investigations to safeguard the physical integrity” of the three missing reporters with the local El Comercio newspaper.
Earlier this week, military and police representatives of Colombia and Ecuador held a meeting to strengthen their presence in the border region following a joint statement by Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos in which they committed to “deepen immediate cooperation between the security and defense organisms."
The alleged kidnapping followed an attack on a water tanker on Monday, a deadly bomb attack on border patrol soldiers on March 20 in which three soldiers were killed, a bombing on a military base on March 16, and the attack on a police command in San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas on Jan. 27.
Authorities reported the first attack was most likely related to drug trafficking and counter operations by Ecuadorean police. A total of 14 people have been detained in that case. Following that attack the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) sent a delegation to the Andean country to assist in the investigations.
Ecuador’s military intelligence claims the attacks are perpetrated by Residual Organized Armed Groups (GAOR), criminal gangs formed by former guerrillas who have military training and engage in international drug trafficking. The agency has identified six such groups working in Tumaco, in the Colombian border with Ecuador.
The attacks have been used by politicians like General Paco Moncayo to criticize Ecuador’s decision to expel a U.S. military base in Manta. “Removing the Manta base and not having anything to replace it was silly and irresponsible. They left the country defenseless against threats as terrible as drug trafficking,” Moncayo said via Twitter.
Allowing a U.S. military base in Ecuadorean territory would deepen the shift in Ecuador’s defense and security policy. Recently, Moreno’s government decided to eliminate the country’s intelligence agency created in 2009 to break up links between U.S. agencies and Ecuadorean intelligence which have been proven to exist in the past.
In light of these border assaults, President Moreno invited U.S. military officials to Ecuador to "strengthen friendships between the two countries... discuss bilateral cooperation and fight against transnational narcotrafficking."
The U.S. embassy in Quito says the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Joseph P. DiSalvo, and Liliana Ayalde, civilian deputy of Southern Command are visiting the country to "listen to the ideas and worries of the defense authorities and civil authorities, and to reiterate Southern Command's commitment to boost and strengthen the friendship between the two countries."