The killing of three journalists from the Ecuadorean daily newspaper El Comercio on April 13, 2018 at the Colombian border spurred authorities from both countries to take combined measures to strengthen security and guarantee the safety of the area. Dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish), whose leader goes by the alias Guacho, kidnapped the journalists three weeks earlier in Mataje parish, in the Ecuadorean province of Esmeraldas.
“The binational reaction will be forceful. We won’t back down on this,” Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín told the press. “We will take all measures necessary to bring down Guacho’s organization and secure the border so that Ecuadoreans and Colombians can live in peace.”
The countries’ ministers of defense and military high command held a special meeting of the Binational Border Commission on April 17th in Quito, Ecuador. The meeting was called under the cooperation mechanism known as 3+2, which provides grounds for meetings between the two nations’ Foreign Relations, Defense, and Interior ministries.
The authorities agreed to an increase in military and police operations, with 24-hour operations in Esmeraldas province and in Tumaco, Colombia. Additionally, a reward of $230,000 is being offered for information leading to the capture of Guacho, the alleged leader of the Oliver Sinisterra front of the FARC-People’s Army, composed of 150 outlaws.
“President Santos understands the pain felt by President Moreno and all Ecuadoreans stemming from these tragic events,” Chancellor Holguín said. “Colombia and the entire world condemn the killing of journalists from El Comercio and of four marines, as well as the kidnapping of two Ecuadoreans by Guacho’s criminal group.”
The Colombian Military Forces’ leadership established a command center in Tumaco to personally direct the border control operation. “These operations will be carried out in coordination with Ecuadorean authorities with helicopters, planes, and troops from our forces to control the border and find those responsible for these kidnappings and killings,” Colombian Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas said at the meeting.
The operation’s first results came on April 18th with the arrest of Vincente Cánticus Pascal, alias Brayan, FARC dissident and Guacho’s deputy. “This leader is implicated in the attacks against police and electrical towers, which left the 200,000 inhabitants of Tumaco without power,” said General Ricardo Gómez Nieto, commander of the Colombian Army.
Inspector General Miguel Ramiro Martilla Andrade, chief of the Ecuadorean National Police, represented the Ecuadorean high command. “There is constant coordination and communication with our Ecuadorean counterparts to plan our efforts and locate those responsible for the border crimes and for all other criminal activities,” Gen. Nieto said.
Nearly 10,000 members of the Colombian and Ecuadorean armed forces keep up intensive operations. As of April 23rd, 43 alleged FARC dissidents had been captured. On April 24th, troops from the Colombian Pacific Naval Force seized a half-ton of cocaine during operations carried out in Cabo Manglares, a rural area of the Tumaco municipality. The cocaine, hidden in a subterranean compartment, was valued at more than $20 million on the international market.
“The border operation involves integrated procedures along a 120 kilometer-long and 50 kilometer-wide line,” Army General Alberto José Mejía, general commander of the Colombian Military Forces, said at a press conference. “We carry out tactical mirroring operations and side-by-side patrols along this axis, as well as anti-narcotrafficking, ground control, and offensive operations. We deployed human and technological resources throughout the area to control airspace and optimize intelligence.”
Despite the intensity of the operation, the dissident terrorist group kidnapped two more people along the border on April 24th. “These were businessmen from the Esmeraldas area, and criminals now want to trade them in for the release of two Colombians and one Ecuadorean, all FARC members,” Ecuadorean Minister of Defense Patricio Zambrano said at a press conference.
The armed group’s presence and frequent attacks allow them to get drugs out through Ecuador, down the Mataje River, the official explained. “They were taking out tons of cocaine every week. We stopped the trafficking, and now they carry out reprisals, painful ones, that cost lives. The guilty parties are the Guachos whom are enemies of Ecuador.”
Who is Guacho?
Walter Patricio Artízala Vernaza, alias Guacho, is an Ecuadorean citizen and former member of a FARC front, who was responsible for guarding illicit coca plantations in Colombia along the border with Ecuador. The criminal dissident was a member of the guerrillas until the end of 2016, when he left the group because he opposed to the peace agreement.
“Guacho may be the armed branch of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel,” Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez said in Cartagena. “The situation may turn into a regional geopolitical problem. An enemy of Colombia has been revived: narcotrafficking. Anti-drug policies must be re-established, or we will lose institutional stability. It’s an ethical, political, and economic imperative, as well as a survival instinct.”
Following the security crisis that broke out on the border, the government of Ecuador announced its withdrawal as a guarantee for peace talks between Colombia and the National Liberation Army. “Despite the situation, relations are very good between Quito and Bogotá; our common enemy is Guacho. We will catch him and bring him to justice,” Minister Zambrano said in a release. “Organized crime will not be allowed to take over our country.”