Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the ELN, kidnapped at least five rice growers in the northeast of the country, local authorities said Wednesday.
According to Arauca’s governor, Ricardo Alvarado, the rice farmers were ordered to attend a guerrilla meeting to pay protection money in a rural part of Arauca, the capital of the province with the same name.
Many agricultural entrepreneurs in the mainly lawless Arauca province are extorted by the guerrillas who are the de facto authority in parts where government authorities have no access.
“We know they are charged per hectare and even for the use of agricultural machinery,” the governor said.
The agricultural businessmen never returned from the meeting after which their families alerted the authorities and a major search party was organized.
To complicate the situation, authorities suspect that the hostages were taken across the border to Venezuela.
Colombia’s Foreign Ministry subsequently was called in to talk to Venezuelan authorities to seek their cooperation in the locating the hostages and secure their safe return.
The ELN is currently negotiating the formalization of peace talks with the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
However, the 52-year-old group at the same time has stepped up attacks on the oil industry, the security forces and the civilian population in an apparent attempt to increase their leverage in the negotiations.
This conflict is partly political of character, but mainly about the control of criminal activities like drug trafficking and illegal mining.