A prominent journalist who was kidnapped in Colombia for a week was released Friday afternoon by the leftist ELN guerrillas, lifting a major obstacle to peace talks between the government and Colombia’s second largest rebel group.
Salud Hernández, a correspondent for Spanish daily El Mundo, went missing Saturday while working on a story about kidnappings in the impoverished and violent Catatumbo region, near Colombia’s border with Venezuela.
After being held captive for six days, Hernandez was released to a commission that included representatives of the Catholic Church and Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman.
“I am in good health,” she said in a phone interview with El Tiempo TV, as she was driven back to the Colombian city of Ocaña. “I want to thank the Catholic Church and the Ombudsman’s office for helping with my release.”
Hernandez’s kidnapping had been described by Colombia’s government as a major obstacle towards peace talks with the marxist group, which in previous decades has kidnapped hundreds of people for ransom.
Earlier this week, Colombia’s Minister of Defense warned the rebels that there would be no peace talks if they continued to hold Hernández and two Colombian journalists captive.
“The ELN has committed a crime,” Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas said on Thursday. “Pace talks will not be held if they deprive these citizens of their liberty.”
Colombia’s government and the ELN have been trying to start peace negotiations for more than a year, but the start to formal talks has been stalled over kidnappings and military engagements.
While Colombia’s government demands that the ELN halt all kidnappings and release its current hostages as a prerequisite to peace talks, the guerrillas view kidnappings as an issue that's up for negotiation.
While talks with the ELN—a fighting force of around 2,000— have yet to start, the government is close to signing a peace deal with the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group.
Similar to the ELN, the FARC regularly kidnapped hundreds of people for ransom, and held dozens of soldiers and politicians as bargaining chips in their decades long war against the state.
But unlike the ELN, the FARC agreed to stop kidnappings in 2012 when it started peace talks with the government.
Some hope the recent debacle over the kidnapped journalists might finally force the ELN to realize the folly of their ways.
“This incident might show the ELN that they will have to give up on kidnappings for talks to advance,” said Marisol Gomez, the peace talks editor at Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. “[Hernández's] release is a first step towards peace.”
Hernández said she would provide further details about her time in captivity during a press conference on Friday evening. She predicted that the other two journalists who were kidnapped last week by the ELN will also be freed over the weekend.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.