Ecuador military operations have resulted in 43 arrests of suspected drug traffickers in Esmeraldas Province. Most of the arrests were made near the town of Mataje, where army and special police units conducted door-to-door raids of 91 buildings.
The arrests are part of joint operations by the Ecuador and Colombia armies following the murder last week of three Ecuadorian journalists by the Óliver Sinisterra Front, a drug trafficking organization allegedly associated with Mexican cartels. The front, formerly part of the FARC guerrilla network, controls cocaine and heroin production and shipment in a large area of southwestern Colombia.
The front has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and execution of the journalists. The journalists were kidnapped March 26 near Mataje.
In addition to the arrests, the Saturday and Sunday raids resulted in the confiscation of a large cache of weapons and ammunition, including land-to-air missiles capable of destroying helicopters and other small aircraft.
In Colombia, military operations have resulted in at least 30 arrests and the seizure of a large number of automatic weapons and ammunition. In addition, the Colombian military command reports that coca crops and cocaine processing facilities have been destroyed. The command says it has conducted more than 100 raids in Tumaco, a city of 200,000, said to be under the control of the Sinisterra Front.
Much of the focus in both Ecuador and Colombia is on capturing the leader of the front, Walter Arizala Vernaza, known as “Guacho.” According to Ecuador’s Interior Minister César Navas, Guacho is responsible for dozens of drug-related murders in Colombia in addition to those of the journalists. “He is a ruthless and blood-thirsty criminal and is the heart and soul of drug operations near the border,” said Navas. “He will be brought in, dead or alive.”
Guacho was born in Ecuador but has spent most of his life in Colombia. A reward of $248,000 is being offered for information leading to his capture.
On Sunday, Navas said the bodies of journalists have not yet been located. “The International Red Cross is standing by to bring them home but it is not clear where they are,” Navas said.
Colombian authorities believe the three, Javier Ortega, Paúl Rivas and Efraín Segarra were killed in or near Tumaco, and say an intensive search is underway to locate the remains.