The weary indigenous men gathered at their base camp, among towering trees and dense vegetation that forms a green sea so vast it is disorienting. They perceived that their ancestral land —Selva Madre— was not willing to allow them to find thethe four children who were missing since his charter plane crashed weeks earlier in a remote area of southern Colombia.
Indigenous volunteers and military teams had found signs of hope: a baby bottle, half-eaten fruit, dirty diapers strewn across a wide swath of rainforest. The men were convinced that the children had survived, but heavy rains, rugged terrain, and the passage of time had dampened their spirits and sapped their energy.
The weak in body, in mind and in faith cannot get out of this jungle. Day 39 was life or death, both for the children and for search teams.
That night in the camp, Manuel Ranoque, father of the two youngest children, resorted to one of the most sacred rituals of the indigenous groups of the Amazon: yagé, a bitter tea made from plants native to the tropical forest, widely known like ayahuasca. For centuries, the hallucinogenic cocktail has been used as a cure for all ailments by people in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil.
Henry Guerrero, a volunteer who joined the search from the children’s village near Araracuara, told Associated Press that her aunt prepared the yagé for the group. They believed that she would induce visions that could lead them to the children.
“I told them: ‘Here there is nothing to do. At first glance we will not find them. The last resort is to take yagé’”, says Guerrero, 56 years old. “Really the trip for us is made in very special moments. It is something very spiritual. For us, it’s like a last resort.”
Ranoque took a sip and the men kept watch for a few hours. When the psychotropic effects wore off, he told them it hadn’t worked.
Some rescuers were ready to go, but the next morning, 40 days after the accident, an old man drank what little was left of the yagé. Some people take it to connect with themselves, heal illnesses, or heal a broken heart. The elder José Rubio was convinced that he would help find the children sooner or later, Guerrero said.
Rubio dreamed for a while. He threw up: a common side effect.
This time, he said, it had worked. In her visions, she saw them. He told Guerrero: “The children, we found them today.”
The four children—Lesly, Soleiny, Tien, and Cristin—grew up in the outskirts of Araracuara, a small Amazonian town in the department of Caquetá that can only be reached by boat or small plane. Ranoque said the brothers led happy but independent lives because he and his wife, Magdalena Mucutuy, were often away from home.
Lesly, 13, was the quiet, mature one. Soleiny, 9 years old, was playful, and Tien, almost 5 years old before the accident, restless. Cristin, then 11 months old, was just learning to walk.
At home, Mucutuy grew onions and cassava, using the latter to produce fariña, a type of flour, for the family to eat and sell. Lesly learned to cook at the age of 8. In the absence of the adults, she often babysat her siblings.
On the morning of May 1, the children, their mother, and an uncle boarded a small plane. They were heading to the town of San José del Guaviare. Weeks earlier, Ranoque had fled his hometown, an area where illegal drug cultivation, mining and logging have thrived for decades. He told the AP that he feared pressure from people connected to his work, though he declined to elaborate on the nature of his work or his business dealings.
“There the work is not safe,” said Ranoque. “And it is illegal. It has to do with other people… in a sector that, well, I cannot mention because I put myself more at risk”.
He recounts that before he left, he left Mucutuy 9 million Colombian pesos (around $2,695) to pay for food, other necessities, and the charter flight. He wanted the boys to leave the village because he feared they might be recruited by one of the rebel groups in the area.
They were on their way to meet Ranoque when the pilot of the Cessna single-propeller plane declared an engine failure emergency. The aircraft disappeared from radar a short time later.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday… The engine failed me again… I’m going to look for a river… Here I have a river to the right,” pilot Hernando Murcia informed air control at 7:43 a.m., according to a preliminary report given to known by the aviation authorities. “One hundred and three miles out of San Jose… I’m going to land.”
The Colombian army began a search for the plane after it failed to reach its destination. About 10 days later, with no aircraft or signs of life to be found, indigenous volunteers joined the effort. They were much more familiar with the terrain and the families in the area. A man told them that the plane made a strange noise when it flew over his house. That helped them outline a search plan that they followed up the Apaporis River.
As they trekked across the unforgiving terrain and took breaks in groups, ants would climb on them and mosquitoes would feed on their blood. One prospector nearly lost an eye to a tree branch and others developed allergy and flu-like symptoms.
They kept looking.
Historically, the military and indigenous groups have been at odds, but deep in the jungle, after food supplies and optimism dwindled, they shared water, food, GPS equipment and satellite phones.
Sixteen days after the accident, with the mood low among all the search parties, the rescuers found the wreckage of the aircraft. The plane seemed to have plummeted: it was found in an almost vertical position, with the front part down.
The group assumed the worst. The men had found the aircraft and saw human remains. Guerrero said he and others began packing up things from his camp.
But one of the men who had approached the plane spoke.
“Hey,” he said, according to Guerrero. “I did not see the children.” The man slowly realized that when they found the wreckage, they had not seen the body of any child. He had approached the aircraft and saw the children’s suitcases outside. He noticed that some things looked as if someone had moved them after they crashed.
I was right. The bodies of three adults were recovered from inside the aircraft, but there was no sign of the children or any indication that they were seriously injured, according to the preliminary report.
Army special operations forces changed their strategy based on evidence that the children might be alive. They no longer moved silently through the jungle.
“That’s where the second phase begins,” says First Sergeant Juan Carlos Rojas Sisa. “We went from the stealth part to the noise part so they would already hear us.”
They called out Lesly’s name and played a recorded message from the children’s maternal grandmother asking them in Spanish and the language of the Huitoto people to stay in one place. Several helicopters dropped boxes of food and flyers with messages. The armed forces also brought in trained dogs, including a Belgian Malinois named Wilson that he did not return with the person he was in charge of and that he is still missing.
On the ground, about 120 soldiers and more than 70 indigenous people searched for the children, day and night. They left whistles for the children to use if they found them and marked about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) with duct tape resembling crime scene tape, hoping the children would take the markings as a sign to stay put. the same place.
They began to find clues to the location of the children., including a print they believed to be Lesly’s, but no one could find the children. Some rescuers had already walked more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) — the distance between Lisbon and Paris or between Dallas and Chicago. Exhaustion was starting to take its toll and the military implemented a plan to rotate soldiers.
Guerrero made a call and asked for the yagé. He arrived two days later.
On the 40th, after Elder Rubio drank the yagé, the rescuers went back to comb the jungle from the place where they found the diapers. The sight of him had raised her hopes, but she gave no details about where the children might be. The groups fanned out in different directions, but as the day progressed, they returned to base camp without news.
Sadness descended on the camp. Guerrero told Ranoque when the teams returned: “Nothing. We couldn’t… There is nothing”.
Then came the news. A soldier heard on the radio that they had found the four children, 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the crash site, in a small clearing. Rescue teams had passed within 66 to 164 feet (20 to 50 meters) of there on several occasions, but did not see them.