Colombia on edge over fate of four children missing in Amazon rainforest

President Petro tweeted that the siblings, who disappeared after a plane crash on May 1, were found alive. But neither civilian aviation nor defense officials have confirmed it, and he has posted an apology for his original, unconfirmed announcement

Assorted items found inside an improvised shelter on May 17.FUERZAS MILITARES DE COLOMBIA

Colombia is on edge over the fate of four children who went missing in the Amazon rainforest over two weeks ago. The small aircraft they were traveling in crashed on May 1 in a remote spot, and was located on Tuesday by rescuers who also found the bodies of the pilot, the co-pilot and the children’s mother. But there was no trace of the minors.

The whereabouts of the children, whose ages range from 11 months to 13 years, are still a mystery. The search has been agonizing because of the adverse conditions in the Amazon region, where survival is not easy. Authorities and surrounding communities have combed the area.

President Gustavo Petro on Wednesday tweeted that all four minors had been found alive. “After an arduous search by our Military Forces, we have found alive the 4 children who had disappeared in an aviation crash in Guaviare. A joy for the country.”

However, as the hours went by, the information became confusing and contradictory. Neither the civil aviation authority Aerocivil nor the military forces, the two agencies in charge of the search, confirmed it. Reports began to circulate that it was all a huge misunderstanding and that the children had not been found. Someone from Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), the institution in charge of the protection of minors, reportedly informed the president, who immediately shared the news on social media. The institution has confirmed that the information reached the president through them.

“Information was received from the area assuring contact was made with the four children who were part of the group transported on the aircraft. This report stated that they had been found alive and in good health,” said a statement from the ICBF. “However, the Military Forces have not yet been able to establish official contact due to adverse weather conditions and difficult terrain,” the statement added. Authorities have not been able to “corroborate the information received by the ICBF from various sources.”

Meanwhile, the company that operated the crashed aircraft has issued its own version of the story. It said that the children had not yet been found and that the search was still underway. In a statement, it provides an alternative narrative about what might have happened.

This version holds that the captain of a light aircraft that landed Wednesday in Cachiporro, the Caquetá community closest to the crash site, heard at 3:30 p.m. from local residents that the children had been found and that they were traveling downriver. The captain radioed a colonel in charge of the search. If this version is true, the children could have been caught in a thunderstorm along the way that prevented them from continuing their journey and they might be somewhere cut off from communication while waiting for the weather to clear up.

The fact is that no official authority has yet seen them or made contact with them.

An independent radio station associated with OPIAC (National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon) announced, almost at the same time as the president, that according to sources in the area, the children had been found by an indigenous man. This organization has been actively involved in the search process, and one of its members posted on social media that they were the ones who found the children and not the army. However, official OPIAC spokespersons have not confirmed the news either.

As of Thursday morning, the official line is that it has all been a huge and painful misunderstanding. President Gustavo Petro has admitted he made a mistake and acknowledged that the four children missing in the jungle for two weeks have not been found, despite his announcement to the country the day before. “I regret what happened. The Military Forces and the indigenous communities will continue in their tireless search to give the country the news it is waiting for. At this moment, there is no other priority than to move forward with the search until they are found. The lives of the children are the most important thing,” Petro rectified on his Twitter account.

Before this clear statement, local media were divided between those who believed the president’s information to be true and those who were highly suspicious. It would not be the first time that the president has made a mistaken announcement. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, he announced a ceasefire with the ELN, which was later denied by the guerrilla group. On other occasions, he has even shared messages from fake accounts on Twitter.

The news that the children had survived brought, for a short moment, an enormous joy to the country. It is reminiscent of the story of a castaway told by Gabriel García Márquez in a magazine, or that of Juliane Koepcke, the only survivor of a plane crash who was lost in the Peruvian jungle for 11 days until she was found.

The children live in Araracuara and are members of the Huitoto people, an indigenous group from southeastern Colombia and northern Peru. Their names are Lesly Mucutuy (13 years old), Soleiny Mucutuy (nine years old), Tien Noriel Ronoque Mucutuy (four years old) and Cristin Neriman Ranoque Mucutuy (11 months old).

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