The unexpected rescuers who found Colombia’s missing children
Indigenous men at meeting house for a sacred ritual, including two of the four who found the Colombian children who were lost for 40 days in the Amazon rainforest, in Puerto Leguizamo, Colombia, June 20, 2023.
By GENEVIEVE GLATSKY and JULIE TURKEWITZ
At first, he heard a soft cry. Then, just beyond the broad leaves of the jungle, Nicolás Ordóñez could make out the form of a small girl, a baby in her arms.
Ordóñez, 27, a young man from the humblest of backgrounds, stepped forward, soon to become a national hero. He and three other men had found four Colombian children who had survived a terrifying plane crash followed by 40 harrowing days in the Amazon rainforest — and whose plight had drawn worldwide attention.
But these men did not wear the uniform of the Colombian military, or any other force backed by millions of dollars mobilized for the massive search.
Instead, they were members of a civilian patrol known as the Indigenous Guard — a confederation of defense groups that have sought to protect broad swaths of Indigenous territory from violence and environmental destruction linked to the country’s long internal conflict.
Many in the guard say their cause has long been marginalized. Now, they are at the center of the country’s biggest story.
“What we are, the Indigenous guards, has been made visible,” said Luis Acosta, who coordinates the multiple groups collectively known as the Indigenous Guard. “I think that this may gain us respect and gain us recognition.”
Although members of the guard still do not know how the four children survived the jungle, interviews in their hometown along Colombia’s southern edge provide the deepest account yet about what led them to the moment of the rescue.
Guard members usually wear cloth vests and carry wooden staffs, not guns. And yet, over the years, they have resisted incursions by left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, oil companies and even Colombia’s security forces.
Their sudden thrust into a global spotlight started in May, after a single-propeller plane went down in the remote Colombian Amazon.
A search team soon found the bodies of the three adults aboard — but its four young passengers were missing, setting off an intense, anguished search that involved an unlikely cooperation between the military and the Indigenous Guard.
The children, ages 1 to 13, are siblings from an Indigenous group called the Huitoto, who are also known as the Murui Muina.
They had boarded the plane with their mother, a community leader and the pilot to escape violence from a faction of a left-wing guerrilla group in their Amazonian town, according to Manuel Ranoque, the father of the two youngest children. (The guerrilla group, in text messages to The New York Times, denied that.)
The rescue team’s work captivated people around the globe, and when the children were found alive June 9, Colombian President Gustavo Petro hailed the joining of forces between the Indigenous Guard and the military as a symbol of a “new Colombia.”
Ordóñez and the three other men who found the children — Eliecer Muñoz, Dairo Kumariteke and Edwin Manchola — are all from Puerto Leguízamo, a town at the southern edge of the Colombian Amazon where the drug trade reigns and armed groups fight for control of the industry. They are also Murui Muina.
On a recent day in Puerto Leguízamo, Ordóñez and others sat in a round meetinghouse known among Indigenous groups as a maloca and described why they had signed up for the rescue mission. Light streaked through a thatch roof. A bowl of brilliant green mambe, a mild stimulant made of ground coca leaf sacred to the tribe, sat in the center of the dirt floor.
Ordóñez, born in a town of just seven families, left school at age 10 to begin working, moving boxes at a grocery store in exchange for his pick of damaged produce.
Then, at 14, he was recruited by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the leftist guerrilla group that fought the Colombian government for decades, terrorizing the nation. He said he joined voluntarily, out of economic desperation.
His experience is not unique: Tens of thousands of children have been recruited by armed groups during the country’s long war.
In all, about 300 people participated in the search for the children, according to the military. Members of the Indigenous Guard and the military have spoken positively of their collaboration, explaining that the combination of the military’s technology and the guard’s ancestral knowledge was key to finding the children.
The group from Puerto Leguízamo spent three weeks sleeping in the jungle.
On June 9, the military told the Puerto Leguízamo group to go on alone, without accompanying soldiers, something they had never done before.
The Indigenous guards were exhausted but determined.