Update: The kidnapping of Derk Bolt in Colombia

Journalist Derk Bolt and his cameraman were seized in the northeast of Colombia on Monday. They are presumably being held by guerrilla group ELN. Who are the ELN rebels? And why would they kidnap two Dutch journalists? Univers asked Colombian national Ivan Mahecha, who works as a PhD researcher at Tilburg University.

Update June 28, 2017

Derk Bolt and his cameraman Eugenio Follender have been released unharmed. Bolt told journalists that they were treated well by the ELN fighters who took them. He appeared on Dutch talk show Jinek yesterday, saying that local ELN fighters were suspicious of Bolt and Follender as they were reporting in the volatile region of Norte de Santander. The fighters suspected that Bolt and Follender could be CIA informants. When Bolt asked, “Are you going to shoot us?”, the commander of the rebel group replied: “Have you lost your mind?”.

Nevertheless, Bolt says that he and Follender did fear for their lives when they fled into the jungle with their captors because the Colombian army had launched a search. After walking for days in constant fear of being caught in the middle of a violent confrontation between the ELN and the military, Bolt and Follender were finally released. Bolt added that they were never threatened with violence by the ELN fighters, and that he and Follender were “the first to get food and coffee” during the exhausting hike through the Colombian jungle. In hindsight, Ivan Mahecha’s appraisal of the situation turns out to be strikingly accurate. Read our interview with Mahecha below.

Derk Bolt

Derk Bolt

Derk Bolt is a familiar face on Dutch television. The 62-year-old journalist hosts the program ‘Spoorloos’, in which he reunites adopted Dutch citizens with their birth families. Bolt and his cameraman Eugenio Follender were kidnapped earlier this week, while searching for the biological family of a Colombian-born woman, who was adopted by a Dutch couple after her birth.

Ivan Mahecha, a Phd student at Tilburg University’s Department of European and International Public Law, read about Bolt’s kidnapping in a Colombian newspaper. Born in the village of Pacho in 1979, Mahecha grew up during a violent period in Colombian history. As his PhD research focuses on political tolerance and conflict in Colombia, Mahecha has a profound knowledge of the country’s different rebel groups and armed forces. What can he tell us about ELN and the kidnapping of Derk Bolt?

Bolt and Follender were seized in the northeastern region of Norte de Santander. Is this a dangerous area?

“It is. It’s a strategic location for smuggling routes, because it’s on the border with Venezuela, and there are two rivers connecting to the Caribbean. The soil in this region is good for growing coca plants, so there are also a lot of cocaine plantations. The FARC used to be in control of the area, but they left a power vacuum after their demobilization. A lot of smaller groups are now fighting for control. There’s no open conflict, but there are constant struggles in this area. It’s a very conflictive zone. And because of the deteriorated situation in Venezuela, there is also lack of control from the Venezuelan side of the border. That adds to the problem. The region where Bolt and Follender were taken is not a place you would visit. Not unless you live there, you have family living there, or you’re a member of one of the armed groups active in this area.”

ELN fighters (image: Youtube / NOS)

ELN fighters (image: Youtube / NOS)

Who are the ELN rebels?

“ELN stands for ‘Ejército de Liberación Nacional’, or National Liberation Army. It’s a Marxist rebel group like the FARC. To finance the revolution, the FARC became deeply involved in the drug business. But the commanders of the ELN were catholic priests, who rejected drug trafficking as an acceptable way to finance the guerrilla war. So for the ELN, kidnappings became one of the main sources of money. They also engaged in blackmail and extortion. Especially in the northeastern part of Colombia, where most of the oil companies are located – the ELN is known for targeting oil executives. They usually don’t kidnap random civilians.”

Why would the ELN kidnap two foreign journalists?

“In the past, foreigners were at risk in some parts of Colombia because they were perceived as either being rich, or as being a spy. Today, the problem is that there are regions in Colombia where the government is not in control. For safe passage through these regions, you need to contact the group that is in control. If you don’t inform the local rulers about your business in their territories, you risk being taken. It’s possible that Bolt and his cameraman were kidnapped because local forces didn’t know who they were and what they were doing there. That’s one hypothesis. Another hypothesis is that it wasn’t the ELN who took them, but a smaller group of drug lords. It happens that such groups kidnap people to force the government to recognize them, demanding some kind of political stance. When people are kidnapped in some parts of Colombia, it can be difficult to determine who is holding them. Many different groups are active in the area where Bolt and Follender were kidnapped. And even the central command of the ELN often doesn’t know whether its local factions are holding someone. Unless a specific group claims responsibility for the kidnapping and makes its demands, you just can’t be certain.”

After decades of conflict, the ELN and the Colombian government have begun peace talks earlier this year. Will the kidnapping of two Dutch journalists have consequences for the peace process?

“The peace talks between the government and the ELN are still at an early stage. The ELN is still involved in illegal business, they haven’t laid down their arms like the FARC. The government will probably make a statement, urging the ELN to stop its kidnappings. But if Bolt and Follender are released unharmed, I don’t think the kidnapping will have consequences for the peace talks.”

Are Derk Bolt and his cameraman in real danger?

“If the ELN is holding them and no rescue operations are carried out, I don’t think their lives are in danger. But if the state conducts military operations against the ELN to rescue Bolt and Follender, there is a real possibility that they will be killed in the process – either by the guerrillas or by the military. As long as there is no violent confrontation between the ELN and the state or other groups, I believe they are safe.”


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