[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he drama of missing Spanish journalist Salud Hernández Mora took a sinister turn Tuesday after directors of Colombian media group RCN confirmed that two of their reporters covering the disappearance of Hernández in the Catatumbo region were also unaccounted for.
Hernández Mora, an experienced foreign correspondent for Spain’s El Mundo newspaper and columnist for Colombia’s leading national daily, El Tiempo, was first rumored to be missing Saturday, after failing to return to the capital Bogotá.
On Sunday, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered security forces to begin search and rescue operations in the mountainous region of the Norte de Santander department and in the vicinity of El Tarra, the town where the Spanish journalist was last seen talking to the driver of a “mototaxi” who apparently took her to a remote hamlet known as Filo Gringo.
On Monday, after the award-winning journalist had been missing for 48 hours, a crew from Caracol Television decided to trace the last known steps of Hernández Mora and were detained by an armed group near El Tarra. According to Diego Velosa of Caracol television, the assailants stole their cameras, cell phones and other equipment.
While the journalists from Caracol and a reporter for the Spanish news agency Efe returned late Monday to the town of El Tarra, two reporters from the RCN television and radio media group are now confirmed to be missing.
According to an official press release by RCN, correspondent Diego D’Pablos and cameraman Carlos Melo left the departmental capital of Cúcuta, to arrive midday at El Tarra. Since Monday, the directives of the news network have not been able to establish communications with their reporters.
To intensify the search and rescue operations for the three missing journalists, President Santos dispatched Tuesday morning the Director of the National Police, General Jorge Nieto and Army commander General Alberto Mejía to the region. The nation’s anti-kidnapping unit, Gaula, is already on the ground.
Limited access to phone networks and Internet across the Catatumbo region has been a major obstacle in trying to trace the three missing journalists.
Speaking from Brussels on Monday, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo said his government believes Hernández has been kidnapped by the ELN, Colombia’s second largest insurgent group, despite the fact that the ELN announced in March they would formalize peace talks with the Colombian government.
The 1,700-strong Marxist insurgency operates primarily in northeastern Colombia, and talks are set to take place in Ecuador.
The ELN have a track record of kidnapping foreign journalists. On February 2nd 2003, the guerrilla group handed over to the Red Cross in Saravena, Arauca, photojournalist Scott Dalton from Conroe, Texas and British freelance reporter Ruth Morris. Dalton and Morris were abducted January 21 in this Eastern department of Colombia while on assignment for The Los Angeles Times.
On Tuesday night the Colombian government announced a reward of $100 million pesos (equivalent to US $33,000) for information leading to the whereabouts of the missing persons.
The Miami-based Interamerican Press Association (IAPA) also expressed deep concern over the well-being of Salud Hernández and demanded “guarantees for her life and physical integrity.”