Survivors? The mystery of Colombia’s plane crash children

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Wreckage of the Cessna 206 that crashed in the rainforest between Caquetá and Guaviare. Handout: Ejercito Nacional.
Wreckage of the Cessna 206 that crashed in the rainforest between Caquetá and Guaviare. Handout: Ejercito Nacional.

On May 1, a single prop aircraft vanished from the radar over the Colombian Amazon. The Cessna 206, was transporting seven people, including pilot and co-pilot, an adult male and four indigenous children.  Moments before the aircraft disappeared somewhere between Caquetá and Guaviare, the crew managed to send out a May Day signal giving the country’s Civil Aeronautics Authority (ACC) an approximate coordinate as to the location of the aircraft.

After weeks of surveillance flights along the original Araracuara to San Jose del Guaviare route, the Colombian Army managed to reach the crash scene and confirmed the identities of the three adult male passengers who died in the crash. But none of the four children, aged 13, 9 and 4, as well as an 11-month-old baby, were inside the wreckage of a plane that dove nose first into the thick canopy of Amazonian rainforest.

An army sniffer dog, named “Ulises”, then led the soldiers to a clearing where they found some pieces of fruit, a baby bottle, scissors and bag with hair bands. A preliminary statement from the ACC claimed the children left the remote crash scene in search of help, and somewhere near the closest township of Solano, department of Caquetá.

The first pictures of the plane and “Ulises” standing next to the personal items of the children, prompted President Gustavo Petro to issue on Wednesday via Twitter the following statement: “After arduous search efforts by our Military Forces, we have found alive the 4 children who had disappeared due to the plane crash in Guaviare. A joy for the country.”

The country was poised to rejoice even without a “proof-of-life” photograph to accompany the President’s statement. Several international news outlets, among them Reuters, opened with the headline: “Colombian children found alive in jungle after plane crash.”

But where are the children?

Petro’s affirmation was not been validated by Colombia’s Armed Forces, despite the important evidence discovered in the jungle overgrowth by an Elite Commando of 100 soldiers and “Ulises” the hero dog. On Wednesday night, hours after Petro’s Tweet, the Army released video footage of the commando patrolling the rainforest at night calling-out to the missing children with megaphones.

Army sniffer dog “Ulisés” at the crash scene with some personal items of the missing children. Photo: Ejercito Nacional.

This dramatic footage appears to contradict the government version that the youngsters – and baby – are safe and sound. Even the company that owned HK2803 issued a statement in which it claims that “regarding information about the missing minors, the search continues with the personnel of the Colombian Air Force, and father of the minors, without any results for the moment”.

As the country anxiously awaits news that the four children belonging to the Huitoto tribe are being protected by an indigenous community, or in the care of the country’s child welfare institute – ICBF – on Thursday morning President Petro ordered the directors of Civil Aeronautics and ICBF to region to join the Armed Forces in search and rescue operations.

Late Thursday morning President Petro decided to eliminate his original Tweet “based on information from the ICBF that could not be confirmed.” After regretting the “mistake” he added: “The Military and indigenous communities will continue in their tireless search to give the country the news it is waiting for”.

A bag of hairbands and baby bottle found at the scene of the crash. Photo: Ejercito Nacional