Last week's kidnapping of two Western journalists in one of this country's most dangerous provinces was apparently not an accident of timing.
The abduction came just one week after US Green Berets arrived in the northeastern department of Arauca to help protect an oil pipeline partially run by Occidental Petroleum, based in Los Angeles. The 5,000-member leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), which claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, said that the journalists were taken in response to a new US policy that allows US troops to train their Colombian counterparts to fight guerrillas. Currently, American troops can only help combat drug traffickers.
Historically, foreign journalists in Colombia were treated as independent observers of the 39-year civil war that pits the government against left-wing rebel groups and right-wing paramilitaries. But with a greater US military presence in Colombia now, one former diplomat says that journalists may be the latest target of rebels opposing US support for Bogotá.
"[The ELN's] hostility to the US and US companies has always been there," says Miles Frechette, US ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997. "They've been after the US government for many, many years." Mr. Frechette speculates that the two journalists simply represented soft targets that could be used as leverage in discussions with the government.
Last Thursday, the ELN announced that they had taken Ruth Morris, a freelance reporter based in Bogotá, who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, and the Dow Jones News Service; and Scott Dalton, a freelance photographer who spent nine years with the Associated Press. Both were on assignment for the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Dalton is a native of Conroe, Texas, while Ms. Morris holds British citizenship, but was raised in California. Apparently, the ELN mistook Morris for an American national in its radio broadcast.
In its statement, the ELN suggested that it was acting in self-defense.
"You must take into account that Arauca State has been declared a war zone by the American government and the Colombian state," said the guerrilla statement. "For that reason, the National Liberation Army is on war footing and is [acting] in the defense of the dignity of all the people of eastern Colombia."
The statement did not contain ransom demands, but instead said that Morris and Dalton would be freed "when the political and military conditions permit."
A Sunday editorial in the leading Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, suggested that this could be a dangerous new tactic by guerrilla groups opposed to American intervention in the long Colombian conflict. "Does it mean that the ELN is getting ready to demand conditions from the government, using the two foreign journalists as pawns in some absurd political-military blackmail? If [so], the ELN would be opening a new step in violating human rights and inaugurating an attack without precedent against the liberty of the press," the paper noted.
Indeed, this is the first time in recent memory that Western journalists have been "retained" by Colombian guerrillas. Three American-based journalists - Robert Pelton, Megan Smaker, and Mark Wedeven - were taken last week by rightist paramilitary forces while on assignment for National Geographic near the Panamanian border. They were freed on Thursday night. Paramilitary leaders claimed they were taken for their own safety during a gun battle with leftist guerrillas, and to determine whether they were guerrilla sympathizers.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks the safety of journalists around the world, between 2001 and 2002 there were at least 14 suspicious deaths of journalists in Colombia, all Colombians.
Unlike their local counterparts, foreign journalists have been able to roam the country, covering the conflict with relative freedom. Now they say that last week's kidnapping represents a turning point in how they will cover Colombia.
Several foreign journalists say they are not surprised that this had occurred. "I thought sooner or later it was going to happen to one of us. The risks have been growing for quite a while," says James Wilson, a freelance reporter for the Financial Times.
Richard Emblin, the photo editor for El Tiempo and a former colleague of Morris, says that foreign journalists thus far had been "incredibly lucky."
"The Colombian photographers lost their sense of security a long time ago," he says. "What's going to happen to the coverage of Colombia if the foreign press [loses its, too]?" Emblin asks.
Morris and Dalton were traveling on the road from Saravena to Tame, about 200 miles northeast of Bogotá, when they were stopped at an ELN checkpoint last Tuesday. According to their driver, the pair was offered an interview with top ELN commanders. They were led away from their taxi blindfolded, not an uncommon practice when reporters are interviewing rebel commanders.
The driver was soon released and told the reporters would be turned over to the local Red Cross, which has since been unable to make contact with them.
In the coming year, US special forces plan to train about 1,000 members of Arauca's 18th Brigade to help protect the 500-mile Cano-Limón oil pipeline from rebel sabotage. In 2001, the pipeline was dynamited 170 times by the ELN and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), sapping millions in profits from the Colombian government and its American business partner, Occidental. Last year, the pipeline was bombed about 30 times, but it remains a top rebel target. US troops have trained Colombian troops before, but only in counternarcotics missions and in other areas of the country.