Al Jazeera Blogs


Americas

French journalist feared kidnapped in Colombia

A journalist is missing in a remote area of Colombia, feared kidnapped and injured. Roméo Langlois, a freelance correspondent based in Colombia for France 24, was last seen Saturday while filming an anti-narcotics operation.
Last modified: 1 May 2012 04:38
Colombia's army has been fighting the FARC for decades [EPA]

A journalist is missing in a remote area of Colombia, feared kidnapped and injured.

Roméo Langlois, a freelance correspondent based in Colombia for France 24, was last seen on Saturday while filming an anti-narcotics operation near the village of Buena Vista in Caquetá state, in southern Colombia not far from the borders of Ecuador and Peru.

Details of what happened to Langlois are vague, but based on early reports; it appears that the 34 year old was embedded with security forces as they arrived at a narcotics lab just before sunrise on Saturday.

The lab was a good find. It reportedly had nearly 400kg of cocaine.  

But when a soldier unexpectedly found a secondary lab holding roughly one and half tons of base paste cocaine, the security forces and Langlois moved there, and this is where they were reportedly met by as many as 150 armed fighters, in all liklihood from the FARC.

It's no secret the FARC are entrenched in the lucrative drug production business in the jungles of Colombia.

A gun battle between the security forces and the fighters ensued that, according to one eyewitness account, lasted for over 13 hours.

The anti narcotics forces called for air support, and while they were waiting for it to arrive, were apparently restricted in their ability to return fire to the rebels because of fear of killing civilians, according to a soldiers quoted in a local newspaper.

Based on numerous accounts, like this one from Inter Press Service, the rebels were winning the battle; not a reassuring sign for Langlois.

As this Global Post story says, Langlois was injured in the arm during fighting.

By all accounts, he was last seen running for his life during the melee. What direction he was running and what his intend was (to run away from it all? surrender to the guerilllas?) remains in question.

On Monday, a spokesperson at the French foreign ministry said Langlois was likely being held by the FARC and called for his immediate release, according to France 24.

Also late Monday Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said there were ‘clear indications’ the journalist was being held by the guerilla group.

Journalists accompanying anti-narcotics lab raids in the jungles of Colombia is not uncommon. It's a dangerous, but necessary staple of covering the country for most journalists; a way to get a first hand look at the anti narcotics battles from the tip of the spear.

In 2007 myself and colleagues Josh Rushing and Guillermo Galdos found ourselves on a Blackhawk helicopter with an elite police anti narcotics team being dropped on a mountain top in the jungles to accompany a mission.

It was part of an Al Jazeera documentary called Shadow War, and part two, was, I suspect, fairly similar in many ways to the operation Langlois was on.

I remember a day before the operation we sat in a classroom on tiny police air base in a sweltering hot little town in the mountains of Colombia watching as the commander showed a PowerPoint presentation to about two dozen elite officers.

The slides showed the names and faces of all the FARC battalion commanders that could be operating in the area of the raid. He went into great detail explaining the contingency plans for calling for backup should they encounter unexpected combat, and the exact ammount of time it would take to march back up the mountain to the waiting helicopters.

In my experience, most of the elite, mobile anti narcotics raids in Colombia are done by small teams of a few dozens soldiers that are equipped to blow up drug labs but not stave off intense combat for extended periods

Afterwards, I remember one of the commanders told us that the greatest danger was unexpectedly dropping in on a FARC battalion, catching everybody by surprise.

If that happens, "anything is possible,” I remember he said, matter-of-factly.

While the Colombian military and special forces police often take journalists with then on such missions, they usually make sure the likelihood of confrontation with the FARC is minimal.

But this is Colombia, where the FARC and security forces don't play well together, and when they mix it usually means automatic machine gun fire. And, then, all bets are off.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this is what happened in the case of Langlois: Both the FARC and miliatry were caught by surprise by each others presence and before anybody could get a grip on the siutation the fog of war set in.

By all accounts Langlois was an experienced journalist in Colombia with lots of experience in these situations.

Hollman Morris, a friend and respected Colombian journalist and filmmaker with decades of conflict reporting, tweeted on Sunday: “Romeo Langlois is one of the best foreign reporters I know covering and exposing the barbaric war in Colombia.”

What will happen next?

I don’t claim to be an expert in the thinking of the FARC, but if Langlois was captured by the rebels it’s highly unlikely they would intentionally kill him to send a statement.

It’s also unlikely they would hold him for a prolonged period. The FARC are trying to get out of the high profile hostage business, having recently released the last group of miliatry and police hostages.

Right now, for the FARC, holding a French journlaist is likely more of a headache than it’s worth.

And history indicates the FARC don't like holding journalists for extended periods of time.

With that said, Langlois is facing real danger, especially if he is injured.

Most former FARC hostages have said they felt most in danger during rebel and military combat, when they can easily inadvertently become collateral damage.

And, keep in mind, there is no hard evidence the FARC are even holding him. 

He could simply be lost and disoriented trying to find help. 

The next few hours and days will be critical.

Whatever happens, and wherever Langlois is right now, here is hoping he is back to safety soon.  

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter at @elizondogabriel