BOGOTÁ — Two Peruvian oil workers and three Colombian colleagues held in captivity since Jan. 18 by Colombia’s rebel Army of National Liberation [Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, or ELN] were released Feb. 15 in the department of Bolívar.
Remaining in custody is a sixth man, Jernoc Wobert — a Canadian citizen and vice-president of exploration for Geo Explorer, which employed all the men. Wobert was separated from his co-workers on Feb. 3. The ELN has said nothing regarding Wobert’s whereabouts, though the other previous hostages said he is “in good shape.”
The six geologists were seized a month ago by 20 members of the ELN’s elite Frente Dario Ramirez Castro near the town of Norosi. The ELN — the smaller of the two rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Colombian government — finds its traditional heartland in the mountains of the nearby Serrania de San Lucas.
The ELN, which is believed to have about 2,500 combatants, has not been involved in the recent peace talks now underway in Cuba between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
German retirees also being held against their will
Separately, ELN rebels continue to hold two elderly German brothers who were captured last November while travelling across Catatumbo, in the department of Norte de Santander. The ELN — believing Uwe and Günther Otto Breuer are employees of the state-run petroleum exploration company Ecopetrol, or even spies — demands that the Colombian government prove otherwise before it agrees to release the brothers.
Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón has renewed his call upon the rebels to release all foreign hostages at once.
“The ELN guerrillas must commit to the unconditional and immediate release of the Canadian citizen and two German citizens, and they must stop talking of peace and start showing demonstrations of peace,” Garzon said. “They must stop kidnapping and committing terrorist acts against the Colombian people.”
Once, kidnapping was crime synonymous with Colombia itself. But London-based global security firm Red24 says abductions for ransom have dropped off in recent years.
“Kidnapping statistics are difficult to obtain – primarily because incident classifications vary from country to country and many kidnappings are not reported for fear of retaliation by the kidnappers or fear of police corruption and ineptitude,” said a Red24 analysis. It added that authorities reported 258 kidnappings in 2011 — less than Haiti, Mexico or Venezuela.
FARC refrains from kidnapping foreigners
Yet despite the FARC’s public declaration last year that it would officially no longer take hostages for ransom, the group still kidnaps Colombian police officers and soldiers, referring to them as “prisoners of war.” They are still actively kidnapping policemen and soldiers, preferring to call them “prisoners of war.”
On the other hand, the last time the group kidnapped any foreigners was in 2011, when it held four Chinese oil workers from June until November of that year.
The ELN, however, is still actively kidnapping and has made no such statements to the contrary. High-ranking ELN guerrillas “Gonzalo”, “Oscar Nobles” and “El Mocho” were supposedly behind the latest kidnappings.
Wobert and two Peruvians — Javier Ochoa and José Manuel Mamani — were moved to 21 different locations in the region of southern Bolívar, but mainly in villages near Arenal, Morales and Norosi.
Col. Jorge Vargas, who heads the police department in Bolívar — where the kidnappings took place — said that in this region, illegal mining had surpassed coca cultivation as the ELN’s main source of illicit income.
ELN extortion on its way up
Police statistics show that from 2010 to 2011, the total area under coca cultivation dropped from 3,300 hectares to 2,200 hectares. The ELN has since stepped up its extortion of local companies — both illegal and legal — in exchange for land and mineral rights.
Colombians widely condemned the kidnapping of the foreigners, with the government at one point offering 100 million pesos (about $56,000) for any information on the whereabouts of the hostages. This figure was later raised to 150 million pesos (about $84,000).
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón initially sent 600 soldiers to the mountainous terrain to hunt down the ELN guerrillas. That was in addition to dropping leaflets over the area advising guerrillas of the potential bounty available. But as the hostage drama dragged into its second week, the number of soldiers involved in Operacion Emblema doubled to 1,200.
ELN attempts to justify latest kidnapping
The ELN said it had targeted Geo Explorer to highlight the group’s “opposition to mining exploitation.” On its website, the ELN justified its kidnapping as part of a campaign to “protect the natural resources which are being handed over to international companies.”
The ELN also announced that any harm suffered by the hostages during a military rescue mission would be “a tragic and regrettable ending, and would be the direct responsibility of the government’s actions.”
When the other hostages were handed over to members of the International Red Cross, officials expressed surprised that Wobert was not among them.
“Of course, military and police operations in the area are still trying to locate this Canadian citizen kidnapped by the terrorist group,” said Pinzón, adding that the ELN is “as always, looking for money.”