They are native Colombian guards who find missing children

First, he heard a small noise. Then, beyond the broad leaves of the forest, Nicolas Ordonez could make out the form of a little girl, with a child in her arms.

Ordóñez, 27, a young man of humble origins, rose to prominence and would soon become a national hero. He and three other men found four Colombian children who survived a horrific plane crash after 40 harrowing days in the Amazon jungle, and their plight drew worldwide attention.

But they don’t wear the uniforms of the Colombian army or the multimillion-dollar-backed forces mobilized for the massive search.

Instead, they were members of a civilian patrol known as the Inland Guard, a coalition of advocacy groups seeking to protect the vast hinterland from the violence and environmental destruction associated with the country’s long-running civil conflict.

Many guards say their cause has been sidelined for too long. Now, they are at the center of the country’s biggest story.

„It brought to light what we, the tribal guards, are all about,” said Luis Acosta, who coordinates several groups known collectively as the Indigenous Guard. „I think it’s suddenly gaining respect and recognition.”

While rangers still don’t know how the four boys survived in the jungle, interviews conducted in their hometown in southern Colombia provide the most detailed account of what led to their rescue.

Colombia’s native guards usually wear cloth vests and sticks, not weapons. Yet over the years they have resisted incursions by left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, oil companies and Colombian security forces.

Its sudden global prominence began in May, when a single-prop plane went down in a remote part of the Colombian Amazon.

A search party soon found the bodies of the three adults on board, but the four young passengers went missing, prompting an intense and brutal search that saw extraordinary cooperation between the military and the Home Guard.

The children, between the ages of 1 and 14, are siblings and part of the Huitoto tribal group, also known as Murui Muina.

According to Manuel Ranoc, the father of the two youngest children, they boarded the plane with their mother, a community leader and a pilot to escape violence by a leftist guerrilla group in their Amazonian town. (The guerrilla group, in text messages to the Times, denied this.)

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The rescue team’s work captivated people around the world, and when the children were found alive on June 9, Colombian President Gustavo Pedro Celebrated the union of forces Between the Interior Guard and the Army as a symbol of the „new Colombia”.

Ordóñez and the three other men who found the children — Eliecer Muñoz, Dairo Kumariteke and Edwin Manchola — are from Puerto Leguízamo, a town in the southern part of the Colombian Amazon, where drug trafficking dominates and armed groups fight for control of the industry. They also turned around.

On a recent day in Puerto Leguízamo, Ordóñez and others sat in a round meeting house among indigenous groups known as maloca and explained why they joined the rescue. Light filtered through the thatched roof. In the center of the earthen floor was a bright green mamba bowl, sacred to the tribe, made from the cocoa leaf, a mild stimulant.

Born in a town of seven families, Ordóñez left school at age 10 and began working at a grocery store moving boxes.

Then, at age 14, he was recruited by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the leftist guerrillas who have terrorized the country for decades fighting against the Colombian government. He says he joined voluntarily due to financial crunch.

Their experience is not exceptional: thousands of children have been recruited by armed groups during the country’s long-running conflict.

As a child, Ordénez said, he was never drafted for armed combat. But he soon became disillusioned with the group’s violent tactics, and when he was captured by the military a year later, he attributed it to divine intervention.

The peculiarity of his transition from fighting against the state to working with it did not go unnoticed.

„A day ago I was an enemy of these people and now I work for them,” he said. „What madness!”

At age 15, Ordóñez entered a government reintegration program for child victims of recruitment. For the next three years, he took governance courses and did community service in violent neighborhoods. At the age of 18, he returned to Puerto Leguizamo and undertook a „spiritual revolution”, immersing himself in indigenous customs.

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In May, the local constable called him to ask if he wanted to become an official member. I agree. A few days later, he responded to a call for volunteers in a government effort to find the missing brothers – dubbed Operation Hope.

A child member of an armed group in the past now had a new mission: „This is my war now,” he said. „Save the children.”

The current indigenous guard is a product of the Colombian conflict, whose modern history many trace to the creation of the FARC, which promised to overthrow the government and redistribute land and wealth.

At least 450,000 people were killed by right-wing paramilitaries, the FARC, the military or other armed groups. A peace deal in 2016 led the FARC to lay down its weapons. But violence continues, with old and new groups fighting for territorial control.

Coordinator Acosta explained that the current Indigenous Guard was created about 20 years ago to protect communities from armed groups.

Sometimes the guards work together, protesting violence through the capital Bogotá. Other times they work individually, patrolling their territories.

In total, the National Guard has tens of thousands of members, Acosta said.

Men, women and children can join from the age of 13, he said. Members learn first aid and take lessons in history and politics.

Munoz, 48, another member of the team that found the children, was motivated to help in the search because of the conflict.

Muñoz joined the Colombian army at age 18 and returned to his community more than a decade after learning that his father and brother had disappeared, believing it to be the work of an armed group. (At least 120,000 Colombians have been forcibly disappeared between 1985 and 2016, According to government).

He scoured the area for information, but could not find out why they had been taken or what had become of them.

„I put myself in their shoes,” he told the children’s father when he joined the search. „I know what suffering is and know that one gives one’s life for one’s family.”

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In total, around 300 people were involved in the search, the army said. Members of the Home Guard and the Army spoke positively of their collaboration, explaining that a combination of military technology and the Guard’s ancestral knowledge was key to finding the children.

The group from Puerto Leguizamo slept in the jungle for three weeks.

They braved wild animals, venomous snakes and poisonous plants in the intense heat of the jungle where trees 100 feet or more high blocked the light. In one case, rescuers found a diaper. In another case, a trace. Each discovery brought joy to the team, but when the search was interrupted by heavy rains, frustration set in.

On Friday, June 9, the military asked the Puerto Leguizamo group to proceed alone without escorts, something they had never done before.

The native guards were tired but determined.

A few hours later, when they sat down to share some mango, Munoz picked up a turtle.

„If you give me the children, I will release you,” he said. „I will eat if you don’t give me children.”

After walking about 400 meters up a steep hill, they heard cries around 2 pm.

„Children!” they said.

Ordonez paused, staring at the ground for signs of life. He slowly approached the sound. When she looked up, Leslie, 13, was holding the hand of her sister Solini, 9, who had baby Christine, 1, in her arms.

Tien Noriel, a 5-year-old boy, lay on a bed of leaves nearby.

Ordóñez, who wanted to comfort the children, said that they were from the same town. „We’re family,” he told them. Then the children hugged their saviors.

At that moment, Kumarideke broke the relative silence of the forest and began to sing thanks to God.

Each guard carried a child in their arms. Ardenez drove Leslie several hours down the mountain to a military rendezvous point.

As part of the deal, they freed the turtle.

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