QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno on Friday confirmed that three press workers kidnapped along the conflictive border with Colombia had been killed, opening the door to a military strike against their captors.
Moreno spoke after a 12-hour deadline ended with the captors failing to demonstrate the hostages were still alive. It's still not clear how they died but Moreno denied the hostage takers' unsubstantiated claims it was the result of a stealth military operation.
"Despite our best efforts, we've confirmed that these criminals never had the intention of handing them back safe and sound," Moreno said.
He said elite troops would soon be deployed to the northern border area where the employees of El Comercio newspaper were last seen nearly three weeks ago while investigating a rise in drug-fueled violence. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dispatched his top military advisers to Quito to assist in the military planning.
Moreno also offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Walter Arizala, better known by his alias Guacho, the leader of a holdout group of guerrillas from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement from Bogota that it had received approval from the two governments as well as members of Guacho's groups to organize a humanitarian mission to recover the bodies.
Fears that the kidnapping had ended in tragedy emerged Thursday when a Colombian TV network said it had received gruesome photos purporting to show the bodies of the three men.
However forensic experts in both countries were unable to confirm the authenticity of the images, exasperating press groups and family members who say accused both governments of taking the incident too lightly.
Moreno on Thursday night rushed back from a regional summit in Peru to deal with a crisis that has shaken Ecuadoreans' long held self-identity as a tiny, peaceful nation insulated from the drug-fueled violence raging across its border. In a late-night press conference, he said there was an "enormous possibility" the deaths were real and on Friday said authorities had obtained new, unspecified information that confirmed the three men had been killed. He decreed four days of national mourning
As Moreno spoke, dozens of colleagues and friends of reporter Javier Ortega, photographer Paul Rivas and their driver Efrain Segarra gathered in tears in a plaza outside the presidential palace under the slogan "Three Are Missing," the same one that has featured in candlelight vigils held almost every night since their disappearance.
"We are torn apart, there are people who've had to seek medical attention to calm down, it's very hard," said Monica Mendoza, a top editor at the century-old newspaper, Ecuador's most-respected and one of its best-selling broadsheets.
She described Ortega as a young, energetic reporter who was up for any assignment. Rivas, 45, was a prize-winning photographer and collector of antique cameras — more than 40 sit in a glass cabinet at his home — who learned his trade from his father and passed it on to his daughter.
Both the Ecuadorean and Colombian governments have tried to limit the fallout from the kidnapping, with officials in both countries denying the men were being held inside their territory and even squabbling over Guacho's supposed nationality.
Earlier this week, authorities dismissed as fake a statement signed by the captors claiming the journalists were killed during a military raid coordinated by the two governments.
"Both governments failed," said Sebastian Salamanca, a lawyer at Colombia's Foundation for Press Freedom.
While more than a dozen journalists used to be killed every year in Colombia at the height of Pablo Escobar's reign in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the numbers have fallen dramatically as the country's half-century conflict winds down to that point only a single press worker was killed in 2017, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In Ecuador, only two journalists have been killed since 1992.
Moreno's promise of a "devastating" military response was seen by many as a tacit acknowledgement that both governments had been too restrained.
"When there is cooperation between the two countries the criminal will always fall," Santos said from the Summit of the Americas in Peru, promising to work closely with Moreno on a military campaign.
In a proof-of-life video released earlier this month, the three men identified their captors as members of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group of a few dozen combatants that authorities say is led by Guacho, a former FARC rebel. The group is believed responsible for a string of recently deadly attacks in northern Ecuador against military targets.
The group in another statement Friday
Moreno announced last month that he was sending 12,000 soldiers and police to combat drug gangs and boost security along the border. That represents about 10 percent of the small nation's police officers and troops.
Ecuador is a major transit zone for Colombian-produced cocaine, with small boats carrying the drugs from the South American nation's Pacific shore to Central America and on to the United States.