Colombia's government has confirmed reports that the country's second-largest guerrilla group — known as the National Liberation Army, or ELN — is holding three journalists who disappeared in a remote and conflictive area of the country several days ago.
Salud Hernández-Mora, a Spanish correspondent working for El Mundo, went missing on Saturday afternoon while investigating drug trafficking in the region of Catatumbo near the Venezuelan border. Reporter Diego D'Pablos and his cameraman Carlos Melo, both working for the Colombian TV station RCN, went missing on Monday while covering the hunt for Hernández-Mora.
The government was initially reluctant to join Colombia's media and blame the disappearances on the ELN, which had announced two months ago that it wants to enter into formal peace talks.
This changed on Thursday when Frank Pearl — the head of the delegation set up by the government to talk about peace talks with the ELN — released a statement saying the group had "kidnapped" the journalists.
"It is unacceptable for these types of attacks to continue in a country that is today moving towards the construction of a stable and enduring peace," the statement read.
Pearl was referring to both the proposed talks with the ELN as well as the much more advanced negotiations with Colombia's biggest rebel group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Those talks, heavily promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos, began in November 2012 and are expected to produce a final peace deal this year.
Colombia has been engulfed in an internal conflict since the FARC and the ELN took up arms against the Colombian state in 1964. Right-wing paramilitaries associated with the state, have also contributed to the bloodshed. At least 220,000 people have died and 6 million have been displaced, with atrocities committed by all sides.
Since announcing their intention to start peace talks, the ELN has been widely criticized for refusing to comply with the government's demand it release hostages before formal negotiations can begin, as the FARC had done before it. The group has also increased attacks against oil infrastructure.
The ELN has said nothing about the disappearance of Hernández-Mora and the other two journalists, let alone claimed responsibility or demanded something in exchange for their release.
Some analysts have nevertheless speculated that the ELN kidnapped the three journalists in order to strengthen their hand in upcoming negotiations. Others have suggested that the group's northeastern front abducted the journalists to sabotage the peace process pushed by the leadership.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, pointed out that the government's use of the word "kidnapping" could further inflame the situation given the ELN's silence so far. He also expressed concern that the journalists could have been taken over the border into Venezuela, increasing the risk of adding a diplomatic incident.
What is clear, Isacson added, is that the government needs to deal with the tension surrounding the missing journalists before there can be any viable peace process with the ELN.
"Forget about peace talks starting with the ELN until this is resolved," he said. "President Santos has demanded that guerrillas renounce kidnapping and free all captives before starting formal talks, and he has no political wiggle room on this."
With the events already receiving blanket coverage in Colombian media, a group of local journalists, pictured above, gathered in Bogotá's Bolivar Square on Wednesday to demand the release of their colleagues. They held photographs of the missing reporters stamped with the words "Set them free now."
Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan