At first, he heard a soft cry. Then, just beyond the broad leaves of the jungle, Nicolás Ordóñez could make out the form of a small girl, a baby in her arms.
Mr. Ordóñez, 27, a young man from the humblest of backgrounds, stepped forward, soon to become 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 rain forest — and whose plight had drawn worldwide attention.
But these men did not wear the uniform of the Colombian military, 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 defense groups that have sought to protect broad swaths of Indigenous territory from violence and environmental destruction linked to the country’s long internal conflict.
Many in the guard say their cause has long been marginalized. Now, they are at the center of the country’s biggest story.
“What we are, the Indigenous guards, has been made visible,” said Luis Acosta, who coordinates the multiple groups collectively known as the Indigenous Guard. “I think that this may gain us respect and gain us recognition.”
While the guardsmen still do not know how the four children survived the jungle, interviews in their hometown along Colombia’s southern edge provide the deepest account yet about what led them to the moment of the rescue.
Colombia’s Indigenous guardsmen usually wear cloth vests and carry wooden staffs, not guns. And yet over the years they have resisted incursions by left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, oil companies and even Colombia’s security forces.
Their sudden thrust into a global spotlight started in May, after a single-propeller plane went down in the remote Colombian Amazon.
A search team soon found the bodies of the three adults aboard — but its four young passengers were missing, setting off an intense, anguished search that involved an unlikely cooperation between the military and the Indigenous Guard.
The children, ages 1 to 14, are siblings from an Indigenous group called the Huitoto, who are also known as the Murui Muina.
They had boarded the plane with their mother, a community leader and the pilot to escape violence from a faction of a left-wing guerrilla group in their Amazonian town, according to Manuel Ranoque, the father of the two youngest children. (The guerrilla group, in text messages to The Times, denied that.)
Mr. Ordóñez and the three other men who found the children — Eliecer Muñoz, Dairo Kumariteke and Edwin Manchola — are all from Puerto Leguízamo, a town at the southern edge of the Colombian Amazon where the drug trade reigns and armed groups fight for control of the industry. They are also Murui Muina.
On a recent day in Puerto Leguízamo, Mr. Ordóñez and others sat in a round meetinghouse known among Indigenous groups as a maloca and described why they had signed up for the rescue mission. Light streaked through a thatch roof. A bowl of brilliant green mambe, a mild stimulant made of ground coca leaf sacred to the tribe, sat in the center of the dirt floor.
Mr. Ordóñez, born in a town of just seven families, left school at age 10 to begin working, moving boxes at a grocery store in exchange for his pick of damaged produce.
Then, when he was 14, he was recruited by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the leftist guerrilla group that fought the Colombian government for decades, terrorizing the nation. He said he joined voluntarily, out of economic desperation.
His experience is not unique: thousand of children have been recruited by armed groups during the country’s long war.
As a minor, Mr. Ordóñez said, he was not assigned armed combat. But he quickly became disillusioned with the group’s violent tactics, and when he was captured by the military a year later, he saw it as divine intervention.
The improbability of his rise from fighting the state to working alongside it did not escape him.
“Just yesterday I was an enemy of these people, and now I am working for them,” he said. “How crazy!”
At age 15, Mr. Ordóñez entered a government reintegration program for child victims of recruitment. Over the next three years, he took courses in governance and did community service in violence-ridden neighborhoods, he said. When he was 18, he returned to Puerto Leguízamo and had a “spiritual revolution,” immersing himself in Indigenous customs.
In May, the Indigenous Guard called, asking him if he wanted to become an official member. He agreed. Days later, he answered a call for volunteers to join the government effort — named Operation Hope — to find the missing siblings.
Once a child member of an armed group, he had a new mission: “That is my war now,” he said. “To rescue children.”
The current Indigenous Guard is a byproduct of Colombia’s 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, either at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, the FARC, the military or other armed groups. A peace agreement in 2016 led the FARC to lay down its arms. But violence persists, with old and new groups battling for territorial control.
The modern Indigenous Guard was created around 20 years ago to protect communities from armed groups, said Mr. Acosta, the coordinator.
Sometimes the guards work together, marching through Bogotá, the capital, to protest violence. Other times, they work separately, patrolling their territories.
In all, the country’s guards have tens of thousands of members, Mr. Acosta said.
Men, women and children as young as 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 driven to help in the search because of the conflict.
Mr. Muñoz joined the Colombian military at 18, and returned to his community more than a decade later, after he heard his father and brother had disappeared, which he believed to be the work of an armed group. (At least 120,000 Colombians were victims of forced disappearance between 1985 and 2016, according to the government.)
He combed the region looking for information, but never learned 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 to suffer and to know that you would give up your life for your family.”
In all, about 300 people participated in the search, according to the military. Members of the Indigenous Guard and the military have spoken positively of their collaboration, explaining that the combination of the military’s technology and the guard’s ancestral knowledge was key to finding the children.
The group from Puerto Leguízamo 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 high or taller can block light. Once, the rescue team found a diaper. Another time, a footprint. Each discovery cheered the team, but despair set in when hard rains stopped the search.
On Friday, June 9, the military told the Puerto Leguízamo group to go on alone, without accompanying soldiers, something they had never done before.
The Indigenous guards were exhausted but determined.
After a few hours, when they sat down to share some mambé, Mr. Muñoz picked up a tortoise.
“If you give me the children, I will let you go,” he said. “If you don’t give me the children, I will eat you.”
They trudged another quarter mile up a steep hill when around 2 p.m. they heard a cry.
“The children!” they said.
Mr. Ordóñez, who had his eyes on the ground looking for signs of life, stopped in his tracks. He moved slowly toward the sound of the noise. When he lifted his head, there was Lesly, 13, holding the hand of her sister Soleiny, 9, who held the baby, Cristin, 1, in her arms.
The 5-year old boy, Tien Noriel, was nearby, lying on a bed of leaves.
Mr. Ordóñez, wanting to comfort the children, told them that they came from the same people. “We are family,” he said. Then the children hugged their rescuers.
At that moment, Mr. Kumariteke broke the relative silence of the jungle and began singing, giving thanks to God.
Each guardsman carried a child. Mr. Ordóñez ferried Lesly on his back for hours down the mountain back to a military meeting point.
As part of the deal, they set the turtle free.