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Journalists killing shows Ecuador, Colombia must act on ‘narco border’

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by Hector Velasco with Jordi Miró in Quito / Agence France-Presse

The kidnapping and killing of two journalists and their driver has thrown up an uncomfortable truth for Colombia and Ecuador, analysts say: that their long-neglected border has become a drug traffickers’ nirvana.

The two governments sent troops into the dense jungle area to hunt for the killers and re-establish control over a region analysts say has become a key corridor for the supply of cocaine to the United States.

Ecuador’s Interior Minister Cesar Navas said Sunday he had sent 550 police and troops, backed by tanks and a helicopter, to take “total control” of the border town of Mataje, where the journalists were kidnapped.

As part of a coordinated operation Bogota sent troops into the Tumaco area on the Colombian side of the border, known as the zone with the world’s highest density of coca-leaf plantations.

The northwestern area is marked by dense jungle, criss-crossed by rivers, leading into the Pacific — an ideal launching pad for seaborne drug shipments and “transnational crime” under the influence of the Mexican drug cartels, said local Colombian military commander General Mauricio Zabala.

This is the fiefdom of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, which claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas and their driver Efrain Segarra.

Its leader is Walter Patricio Artizala, better known by his nom-de-guerre Guacho, a former middle-ranking FARC commander known to operate on both sides of the border with about 80 men.

“Guacho will fall, sooner or later,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Sunday, confirming the kingpin is on a list of high value targets.

“The highly-present Mexican cartels see that one of their main cocaine supply sources is drying up, that is why they are trying to generate violence,” he added.

However, the full-on military approach being undertaken by the governments risks unleashing a fresh wave of violence, according to analyst Fernando Carrion, pointing to the bloodshed in Mexico under Felipe Calderon’s government (2006-2012).

In depressed areas like this one “an economic policy is required so that there is substitution of crops, so that the income of the inhabitants doesn’t come from narcotics,” he said.

“We have to have a multilateral policy, where there are issues of economy, politics and obviously military issues,” said Carrion, an expert in security at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito.

– Government contradictions –
The situation hasn’t been helped by glaringly contradictory statements coming from each government.

Navas, the interior minister, said the journalist team was killed on the Colombian side of the border. “They were murdered on Colombian territory,” he said, tacitly putting the onus on Bogota to find and repatriate the bodies.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said they were killed in Ecuador, where they were kidnapped.

The two governments also differ on the nationality of Guacho, the man they hold responsible for the murders. Each say he is the national of the other country.

“The impression is that there has been a kind of hand-washing going on and handing on responsibility to the other side,” said Carrion.

It’s an uncomfortable reminder of old diplomatic failings in the region.

In 2008, a Colombian attack on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador, without the endorsement of Quito, led to a diplomatic crisis.

For years afterwards, Ecuador refused to carry out joint operations.

“And this case reveals that when you don’t have good coordination, it opens up a space for criminal activities to grow,” said Jorge Restrepo, from the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis, CERAC.

– Security problems –
For all that relations have improved under Santos, there is a growing sense of the ball having been dropped, according to Sebastian Bitar, an analyst at the Colombian University of the Andes.

Bitar points out that the 10,000 troops both governments claim are continually deployed in the border area have not helped resolve the problems, as the journalists’ killing shows.

Until a recent spate of violence in which police barracks were attacked, capped by the news team’s killing, Ecuador believed it could remain safe despite sharing a 700 kilometer (430 mile) border.

“If these dissidents managed to enter Ecuadoran territory to commit crimes, something failed in what we are doing together,” said Bitar.

Part of the problem is that the Colombian side of the border has been under the FARC control for decades, and government oversight non-existent.

Since the peace treaty, there are now 12 groups vying for control of the drug trade in Tumaco, according to analysts.

“This is not any direct consequence of the demobilization of the FARC, it is a consequence of the lack of control that occurs in the Colombian border area due to the high degree of criminality,” said Mauricio Jaramillo, of Bogota’s Rosario University.

In Ecuador, the belief that “everything is the fault of FARC dissidents” also obscures “the area’s main problem, drug-trafficking,” agrees Carrion. (AFP)