By Jules Giraudat
Javier Ortega and his team set out from the Hostería El Pedregal at exactly 7.10 that morning, leaving nothing but a delicately handwritten entry in the guesthouse register.
“Occupation: Journalist,” it read.
Their destination was Mataje, a lawless village lost on Ecuador’s north-western frontier with Colombia. Their mission: to investigate a wave of cocaine-fuelled violence in this the most unreported of South American worlds.
But Ortega and his two travelling partners – the photographer Paúl Rivas and driver Efraín Segarra from Ecuador’s El Comercio broadsheet – would never make it home to file their story.
Three months after setting off for Mataje their bullet-riddled corpses were found across the border, in two unmarked graves that had been booby-trapped with landmines. According to a preliminary investigation into their deaths, it took Colombian special forces more than eight hours to secure the area.
“At the morgue I asked the director … to see my father’s body. He told me it was going to be complicated, that his face was unrecognisble,” recalled Cristian Segarra, the driver’s son. “When they did let me see his hand it was in such a state of decomposition I almost couldn’t recognize it.”
The gruesome murders appalled Ecuadorian society and shone a light on the difficulties and dangers of trying to report on this isolated and intractable corner of Latin America, a region now considered the world’s most deadly for journalists.
Activists say at least 10 journalists have been killed in Mexico this year while a dozen have died in Colombia where there has also been an upsurge in death threats.
But never before had a journalist been kidnapped and murdered in Ecuador, a country that successfully managed to maintain peace even as its neighbor sank into a bloody half-century civil war involving government troops, right-wing paramilitaries and several guerrilla armies.
Seven months on from the journalists’ killings, mystery still shrouds what exactly happened to Ortega and his team from El Comercio.
The border region they had been trying to report on has long been known as an important cocaine producing and smuggling hub where Colombian paramilitaries, guerrillas and government forces have been engaged in a deadly tussle for control.
Colombian-produced cocaine passes through north-western Ecuador before heading up the Pacific coastline to Central America and onto the United States.
The historic November 2016 peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, appears to have aggravated the situation, with about a dozen splinter guerrilla groups – some with reputed ties to Mexican drug cartels – now reportedly operating in this mountainous and densely forested zone.
Recent attempts to crack down on these groups by Ecuadorian and Colombian authorities have sparked a wave of retaliatory violence in Ecuador’s north-western Esmeraldas province, according to Christian Rivadeneira, a local prosecutor.
In January a car bomb tore through a police station in the town of San Lorenzo, in what some observers saw as a sign former FARC rebels were extending their reach into Ecuadorian territory.
Critics claim this is a reality Ecuador’s government is keen to conceal.
“Why is this a taboo subject in Ecuador? Why doesn’t the government want people to talk about it?” asked Colonel Mario Pazmiño, the country’s former director of military intelligence.
“Because it shows to the national and international public that this border is out of control, that its inhabitants are left to their fate. In these conditions, how do you expect them not to collaborate with narco-traffickers?”
It was precisely this inconvenient truth that Ortega, 32, and his team wanted to uncover as they headed to Mataje on 26 March this year.
Yadira Aguagallo, the partner of Paúl Rivas, recalled feeling uneasy about what was his third trip to the violence-stricken border region in quick succession.
“Don’t go this time, please! I think it’s too dangerous,” she remembers imploring him. “It’s my job,” the 45-year-old photographer replied.
According to a report by Ecuador’s interior ministry, the men passed through the last Ecuadorian military checkpoint before Mataje at 9.30 a.m., crossing into an area known to be under the control of a former FARC guerrilla known as “Guacho”.
Then, they disappeared.
Eight days later, a poorly shot hostage video aired by the Colombian channel RCN showed three distraught, enchained men pleading for their lives.
“President Lenín Moreno … our lives are in your hands,” Ortega said in a direct appeal to Ecuador’s leader. “We are physically well but emotionally we’re growing weak.”
Referring to the group behind their abduction, he added: “All the Oliver Sinisterra Front is asking for is a prisoner swap – nothing more.”
At one point it seemed as though negotiations had indeed succeeded. On 28 March one of Colombia’s leading newspapers, El Tiempo, announced – erroneously – that they had been freed. “Everyone was crying here,” remembered Geovanny Tipanluisa, El Comercio’s editor-in-chief. “It was such an incredible joy.”
But on 13 April those hopes were dashed as Moreno confirmed the men were dead. “We’re not going to let ourselves be intimidated,” Ecuador’s president vowed.
What happened between the men’s snatching on 26 March and their murders remains unclear.
Victor Hugo Guerrero Quiñónez, a former Mataje resident and teacher, who has collected eyewitness accounts about that day’s events, said the group had parked their car in the village and began trying to ask locals questions.
“But people don’t like to talk around here – it’s the code of silence,” Quiñónez said. “They asked some children where the bridge that led to Colombia was. The children told them, and then, they disappeared.”
From Mataje they appear to have been taken over the border into Colombian territory, although Ecuadorian officials have rejected the potentially embarrassing claim that the men were seized on their own country’s soil by foreign guerrillas.
“It’s disgraceful … They want to put the blame on the Colombian state,” complained Segarra, the driver’s son. “I think they simply failed to bring them back alive.”
In the months since the killings, Colombian authorities have arrested a succession of people linked to “Guacho” – whose real name is Walter Patricio Arizala – but he himself is apparently still at large.
Answers, like Guacho, are proving elusive despite an ongoing manhunt and bounties that have been offered for his capture.
“It pains me to think that there had to be a kidnapping and a murder for them to start caring about what is happening at the border,” said Rivas’ partner, Yadira Aguagallo.
“The deaths of Paúl, Javier and Efraín cannot go unpunished … Some silences are unsustainable.”
Meanwhile the village they lost their lives visiting has become a wild west-style ghost-town of eerily deserted streets, abandoned cinder-block homes and fearful, tight-lipped locals.
Escorted by 20 heavily armed Ecuadorian soldiers, Forbidden Stories managed to make a brief foray into Mataje in early August. Military officials used drones to keep an eye out for potential threats.