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Ecuador and Colombia begin hunt for Guacho

Ecuadorian and Colombian forces are intensifying their hunt for the leader of the group that has taken credit for the murders of three members of an Ecuadorian press team.

A group of former FARC guerrillas that has taken claim for the murders of the press team from Quito’s EL COMERCIO newspaper, are now the subjects of a massive manhunt in the jungle region on either side of the Ecuador and Colombia border.

Their leader, Ecuadorian-born Walter Artízala, also know as “Guacho,” now finds himself with a $248,000 bounty on his head.

FARC guerrilla known to Colombia as narco-terrorist, not revolutionary

Walter Patricio Arizala Vernaza, aka “Guacho” was born in Limones, in the province of Emeraldas.  His age is a bit of a mystery, but most authroties agree he is between the ages of 27 and 35.  Little is know of Guacho before he joined up with FARC in 2007.

What is known is that he began his criminal activities as part of FARC in the area around the Mira river, in northwestern Ecuador and southwestern Colombia. The area is known for growing coca and for heavy drug trafficking.

According to the Colombian government, this is why Artizala refused to sign the peace agreement between FARC and Colombia in 2016.  After the agreement, Guacho became the leader of the self-proclaimed Front Sinisterra Oliver, which he said, “is a live group of the FARC.”  Estimates at the time were that between 50 and 250 men joined him in this new guerrilla group (though recent estimates suggest the current number of the group at 70 to 80 men).

Guacho exerts enormous control of the region around Tumaco, Colombia, and last year was implicated in the murder of five coca growers in the area.  As a testament to his influence in the area, two anti-narcotics police officers were also charged in these murders. 

Tumaco has the second largest port on Colombia’s Pacific coast and it is where Guacho exports his products to Mexico and then on up into the United States.  According to the Attorney General of Colombia, Néstor Humberto Martínez, the group’s profit from this trade “reach 25 million dollars per week.”

Violence in Ecuador

In 2018, Guacho began an attempt to violently increase his territory of control, by attacking areas of Ecuador across the border from his stronghold in Tumaco.  His first attack was on a police station in San Lorenzo on January 27, 2018.  This attack left 28 people injured and caused significant damage to the town.

This was followed by a second attack on March 20th, on an Ecuadorian surveillance patrol in the Mataje border area.  An explosive deviced was used in the attack that killed three soldiers and wounded seven others.

These atttacks led to the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments offering over $100,000 in reward for information leading to the apprehension of Guacho.  The attacks were also what led El Comercio’s press team to the area. 

To investigate the critical border situation, journalist Javier Ortega, (36 years old), photographer Paúl Rivas (45 years old), and driver Efraín Segarra, (60 years old), arrived in Esmereldas on March 26 and were believed to have been kidnapped shortly after passing through a military checkpoint.  After 18 days of uncertainty, on April 14, the president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, confirmed that the three were assassinated.

“It has been confirmed that these criminals never had the will to deliver them safe and sound and it is very likely that all they have wanted is to buy time,” the president said.

Massive manhunt

The hunt for Guacho has now intensified with military units from both Ecuador and Colombia each deploying thousands of soldiers to find a small group of ex-guerillas who have been terrorizing two countries almost unchecked for months.

The question on many minds is how they have been able to so boldly get away with their activities. 

The commander of Colombia’s Rapid Deployment Force Number 2 of the Colombian Army, General Mauricio Zabala, who is leading his country’s efforts to hunt down Guacho, says the phenomenon is not confined to Guacho.  He blames drug trafficking that breaks boundaries. “This has become a transnational crime, with tentacles of these criminals in neighboring countries. There is a great influence of the cartels of Mexico.”  The area being serached is considered to be the municipality with the most narco-cultures in the world. 

The murders of the Ecuadorians has led to swift action.  As soon as the it was confirmed that the El Comercio team had been killed, Colombia and Ecuador launched a joint military offensive to arrest those responsible. “We have provided all the support and collaboration from the first moment, and we will continue to provide it until (…) justice is done,” said President Juan Manuel Santos, speaking at the Summit of the Americas which he had been attending in Lima Peru.