How the indigenous guard rescued children after a plane crash in the Amazon

At first she heard soft crying. Then, just beyond the broad leaves of the jungle, Nicolás Ordóñez could make out the shape of a little girl, with a baby in her arms.

Mr. Ordóñez, 27, a young man from humbler origins, stepped forward, soon becoming 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 attracted worldwide attention.

But these men were not wearing the uniform of the Colombian army, 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 advocacy groups that have sought to protect large swathes of Indigenous territory from the violence and environmental destruction related to the country’s long-running internal conflict.

Many in the Watch say their cause has long been marginalized. Now they are at the center of the country’s greatest story.

What we are, the indigenous guards, has been made visible,” said Luis Acosta, who coordinates the multiple groups known collectively as the indigenous guard. “I think this can earn us respect and recognition.”

While the guards still don’t know how the four children survived the jungle, interviews in their hometown along Colombia’s southern border provide the most profound account of what led up to their rescue.

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

Their sudden thrust into the global spotlight began in May after a single-propeller plane crashed in the remote Colombian Amazon.

A search party soon found the bodies of the three adults on board, but her four young passengers were missing, setting off an intense and anguished search that involved an unlikely partnership between the military and the Guardia Indigena.

The children, aged between 1 and 14, are siblings from an indigenous group called the Huitoto, also known as the Murui Muina.

They had boarded the plane with their mother, a community leader and the pilot to escape factional violence from a leftist guerrilla group in their Amazon hometown, according to Manuel Ranoque, the father of the two younger children. (The guerrilla group, in text messages to the Times, denied.)

The work of the rescue team has captivated people around the world and when the children were found alive on June 9, the President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, welcomed the joining forces between the indigenous guard and the military as a symbol of a “new Colombia”.

Mr. Ordóñez and the other three men who found the children – Eliecer Muñoz, Dairo Kumariteke and Edwin Manchola – are all from Puerto Leguízamo, a city at the southern end of the Colombian Amazon where drug trafficking reigns and armed groups fight to control of the industry. I am also Murui Muina.

On a recent day in Puerto Leguízamo, Mr. Ordóñez and others sat down in a circular meetinghouse known among indigenous groups as a maloca and described why they had signed up for the relief mission. Light filtered through a thatched roof. In the center of the dirt floor was a bowl of bright green mambe, a mild stimulant made from the ground coca leaf sacred to the tribe.

Mr. Ordóñez, born in a town of only seven families, he left school at age 10 to start work, moving boxes at a grocery store in exchange for his choice of damaged produce.

Then, when he was 14, he was recruited by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the left-wing guerrilla group that fought the Colombian government for decades, terrorizing the nation. He said he joined voluntarily, out of financial desperation.

Her experience is not unique: a thousand children were recruited by armed groups during the country’s long war.

As a minor, Mr. Ordóñez said, he was not assigned 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 saw it as an intervention from God.

The improbability of his rise from struggle to statehood to work alongside him has not escaped his notice.

“Just yesterday 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 recruitment victims. Over the next three years, he took governance courses and did community service in neighborhoods dominated by violence, he said. When he was 18, he returned to Puerto Leguízamo and made a “spiritual revolution”, immersing himself in indigenous customs.

In May, the Guardia Indigena called, asking if he would like to become an official member. He agreed. Days later, he responded to a call for volunteers to join the government effort, called Operation Hope, to find the missing brothers.

Once a child member of an armed group, he had a new mission: “This is my war now,” he said. “To save the children”.

The current Guardia Indigena is a byproduct of the Colombian conflict, whose modern history can be traced to the creation of the FARC, which promised to overthrow the government and redistribute land and wealth.

At least 450,000 people have been killed, at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, FARC, military or other armed groups. A peace deal in 2016 led the FARC to lay down its arms. But violence persists, with old and new groups fighting for control of the territory.

The modern Indigenous Guard was created about 20 years ago to protect communities from armed groups, said Acosta, the coordinator.

Sometimes the guards work together, marching through Bogotá, the capital, to protest the violence. Other times they work separately, patrolling their territories.

In all, the country’s guards have tens of thousands of members, Acosta said.

Men, women and children up to 13 can join, he added. Members are taught first aid and given lessons in history and politics.

Mr Muñoz, 48, another member who found the children, was also pressured to help with the search due to the conflict.

Mr. Muñoz enlisted in the Colombian army at 18 and returned to his community more than a decade later after hearing that his father and brother were missing, which he believed to be the work of an armed group. (At least 120,000 Colombians were subjected to enforced disappearance between 1985 and 2016, second the government.)

He scoured the region for information, but never knew why they were taken or what happened to them.

“I’m putting myself in your shoes,” he told the children’s father when he joined the search. “I know what it is like to suffer and know that you would give your life for your family.”

In all, according to the military, about 300 people participated in the search. Members of the Indigenous Guard and the military have spoken positively of their collaboration, explaining that the combination of military technology and the guard’s ancestral knowledge was key to finding the children.

The Puerto Leguizamo group spent three weeks sleeping in the jungle.

They braved wild animals, venomous snakes, and poisonous plants in the oppressive heat of the forest, where trees 100 feet tall or taller can block out the light. Once, the rescue team found a diaper. Again, a footprint. Each find delighted the team, but desperation came when heavy rains halted the search.

On Friday 9 June, the military told the Puerto Leguízamo group to continue on alone, without soldiers following, something they had never done before.

The native guards were exhausted but determined.

After a few hours, when they sat down to share some mambé, Mr. Muñoz picked up a turtle.

“If you give me the kids, I’ll let you go,” she said. “If you don’t give me the children, I will eat you.”

They trudged another quarter of a mile up a steep hill when at about 2pm they heard a scream.

“The children!” they said.

Mr. Ordóñez, who had his eyes on the ground for signs of life, stopped abruptly. He moved slowly towards the sound of the noise. When he looked up, there was Lesly, 13, holding her sister’s hand Soleiny, 9, who was holding her baby, Cristin, 1.

5-year-old Tien Noriel was nearby, lying on a bed of leaves.

Mr. Ordóñez, wanting to comfort the children, told them they were from the same people. “We are a family,” he said. Then the children hugged their rescuers.

At that moment, Mr. Kumariteke broke the relative silence of the jungle and started singing, thanking God.

Each guard carried a child. Mr. Ordóñez ferried Lesly on his back for hours down the mountain to a military rendezvous point.

As part of the deal, they released the turtle.