The murder of two students in Colombia last
week near a manatee study site—possibly by paramilitary gangsters—sent a chill through the local research community, highlighting dangers to field
workers in the strife-torn country. The corpses of Margarita Gómez, 23, and Mateo Matamala, 26, both students at the University of the Andes in Bogotá,
were discovered by fishermen Monday in mangrove swamps near San Bernardo del Viento, on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Colombia, rich in biodiversity, has been gripped by a multidecade civil war that made many areas unsafe for scientific work. In recent years, however,
Colombia's government, with U.S. help, has dealt setbacks to armed rebel groups. Most major highways are now safe, for instance.
Improving security had sparked a renaissance in fieldwork, with researchers heading back into the countryside in greater numbers to study birds,
archaeological sites, and native plants. Now, researchers may be forced to rethink expeditions.
"My idea about the [security situation] and how that has improved conditions for field biology just changed radically," said Carlos Daniel Cadena, a
prominent ornithologist at the University of the Andes.
It is unclear whether the students, who were shot to death, were carrying out research. Yenyfer Moná Sanabria, coordinator of the Caribbean division of
the Omacha Foundation, which studies manatees, says Matamala was scheduled to begin a 6-month research project with the foundation today. "He never
reached our installation," she says. According to Sanabria, Matamala may have decided to enjoy a few days of vacation near the research zone with
Gomez, his girlfriend. "We didn't know he was there. He didn't take the precautions and ask us where are the safe places to go. The coast is not
secure," said Sanabria.
Police officials said that the bodies were found at the mouth of the Sinú River, a remote location known for manatee sightings. Officials said the
students had been filming in the area and speculated that that could have drawn the attention of local paramilitary groups involved in drug
trafficking. The area is known as a dispatch point for drugs being shipped out of Colombia.
Despite the ongoing dangers, scientists in Colombia say more of the country is now open to them. Luis Germán Naranjo, conservation director of the
World Wildlife Federation in Colombia, said he has been doing fieldwork in areas where "I wouldn't have dared to go 5 or 6 years ago. So it is true
that you can move around more. But that doesn't mean when you go, you are totally safe."
Researchers said younger generation scientists may be more in jeopardy. As a field biologist in Colombia, Naranjo says: "You either resign your
expectations of doing research, or you just take risks. And that is what people have been doing. Especially young people."
The University of the Andes called for a rapid investigation. "The University repudiates these acts of violence and has confidence that the national
authorities will carry out the relevant investigation as quickly as possible, find those responsible, and punish them," it said in a statement.