Manuel Ranoque was the governor of the indigenous reservation of Puerto Sábalo, a remote Colombian community in the middle of the Amazon jungle that can only be accessed by air or by river. The site has a small dirt runway, where only the most daring pilots attempt to land. Locals in Puerto Sábalo were shocked when Ranoque, a man of great standing in the community, disappeared overnight without a trace. No one knew where he was; it was as if the ground had swallowed him up. The most striking part of his disappearance was that he left his entire family behind. For weeks, the community chatted and gossiped about what had happened. Then, just as he was beginning to fade from memory, the man called his family and asked them to meet him as soon as possible, saying there was no time to lose. So on May 1 — 19 days ago — his wife and their four children boarded a single-engine plane, specialized in extreme flights, heading towards a new life.
“The father told them: ‘Come quickly, quickly, quickly.’ That’s why my niece and the children got on that plane. He is to blame,” says Fidencio Valencia, the uncle of the mother, Magdalena Mucutuy, by phone. He believes they should never have boarded the Cessna 206, which was piloted by a man who had previously been a taxi driver. The mystery of Ranoque’s disappearance came to light: he had been threatened by guerrillas. Believing his life was at risk, Ranoque fled the community, ending up in the city of Villavicencio, in the Eastern Plains. He was hoping to meet his family in the city, and from there they would travel together to Bogotá, where they would start from scratch. But the plane never reached its destination.
The flight left Araracuara and was supposed to land in San José del Guaviare. It is believed that there are still isolated indigenous communities on that route. Halfway into the trip, when the plane was flying over Caquetá, over the Apaporis River in the middle of the Amazon jungle, the pilot, Hernando Murcia Morales, radioed in an engine failure. Communications cut out, and nothing more was heard from the plane. It was found two days ago. It had crashed into some trees. The corpses of the three adults were found inside the aircraft and near the debris. On Thursday, their bodies were handed over to forensics experts. However, the children were not found. Colombian authorities are hopeful that they survived the crash and are wandering the jungle until they run into civilization or are found.
The children’s names are Lesly Jacobo Bonbaire (13 years old), Solecni Ranoque Mucutui (nine years old), Tien Noriel Ronoque Mucutui (four years old) and Cristian Neryman Ranoque Mucutui (11 months old), and all of Colombia is on edge as it awaits news of their fate. Colombian President Gustavo Petro mistakenly announced that the four children had been found alive, and had to correct himself hours later. He had been misinformed by an official institution. Since then, Petro has been closely following the case, saying that finding the children as soon as possible is the country’s top priority. For now, the story of what happened to the children is fragmented and incomplete.
The seventh person on board the plane was indigenous leader Hermán Mendoza Hernández, who was married and had a daughter. It is said that he was worried about Magdalena and so decided to accompany her on her trip from Araracuara, a community that was formed around an Amazonian prison that is the source of troubling memories. The closest place to the site of the crash is Cachiporro, a community on the river. Pablo Martínez, who knows the area, explained that the town once had a small school and an airstrip for light planes. He says that communication is mainly via radio, through devices connected to solar panels. Locals in Cachiporro have been helping to search for the missing children, in cooperation with Colombia’s military forces.
The mission to find the children is called Operation Hope, and involves more than 100 soldiers, trained for high-impact operations. For the past 13 days, they have been combing the jungle, inch by inch. On loudspeakers, they play audio of the children’s grandmother calling out to them in Uitoto, their native language. At night, an Air Force ghost plane drops flares to illuminate the area.
So far, the soldiers have found a baby’s bottle and recent footprints near a pipe. According to sources in the area, there is hope that the children survived, as they are familiar with the jungle and its resources. But the search has been made even more difficult by the rain, which wipes tracks.
The plane carrying the children had previously crashed in Vaupés, in July 2021. There were no deaths, but the aircraft was destroyed. An aeronautical source who wished to remain anonymous said that the plane was repaired without consulting the manufacturer (Cessna) because the restoration was cheaper that way. The plane was manufactured in 1982, in the United States, and almost 40 years later, in 2019, it was brought to Colombia. According to the source, the aircraft suffered structural damage in the 2021 accident and did not undergo the necessary revisions to make it safe to fly. “It shouldn’t have been flying,” explains the source. In this area of Colombia, around 40 small companies operate as air taxis. They are not commercial flights, but rather charter flights. The trips are typically made in precarious planes that cannot fly for longer than six hours straight.
These small planes are usually the last resort for fast travel for the residents of the Orinoquia and Amazonia regions. It was how the Ranoque family hoped to reach their new life. But the aircraft crashed on the way, and the mystery of the whereabouts of the four children has still not been solved. The answer is hidden in the depths of the jungle.
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