The Lost Children [Part 2]
In the second part of this series, we explore the efforts of Francisco González and his foundation, Armando Armero, to discover what happened with the lost children. More than 30 years have passed since the landslide and hundreds of families still want to reunite. Where are they? Who took them? Why? How successful has their search been?
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Here’s the first part of the story, in case you haven’t listened to it yet.
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[Guy Raz]: Hey, it’s Guy Raz here, host of How I Built This, with a quick recommendation. Every holiday weekend comes with a lot of waiting traffic, airport security lines, and so while you’re waiting why don’t you just binge on How I Built This? Each episode I speak with the founder of a company who has an incredible story of how it all began. You can find How I Built This on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.
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[Yamid Amat]: Mr. Rivera, flew over Armero in a crop-duster. What’s your report, Mr. Rivera?
[Fernando Rivera]: Armero was nearly….100% leveled.
[Yamid Amat]: Yes. What time was it when you saw Armero?
[Fernando Rivera]: Uh, it was about 6 in the morning.
[Yamid Amat]: How would you describe what you saw?
[Martha Lucía López]: Hearing the cries of people asking for help, people’s cries bursting out of the earth. It was something…no, no, no, it was unbelievable.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
In our last episode, we heard the story of Martha Lucía López and her son Sergio who went missing after the 1985 mudslide in Armero, Colombia. He was missing, but not dead. Nearly 3 decades would go by before Martha Lucía would find out that her son was alive.
[Martha Lucía]: If we knew then, it would have been easier to look for a boy who has the same face. But now, 27 years later, what do you do?
[Daniel]: What do you do? Martha Lucía’s questions was more common than many people thought. Because it wasn’t just Sergio who disappeared, but several children. Many many children in Armero survived the mudslide but were never reunited with their families.
Why? What happened? Our producer David Trujillo has spent several months trying to understand.
[David Trujillo, producer]: Let’s begin with Francisco González.
[Francisco González]: I’m the director of the Armando Armero Foundation. I’m 55 years old.
[David]: Even though he wasn’t born in Armero, he spent a large portion of his childhood there, so…
[Francisco]: I’ve always thought of myself as being from Armero.
[David]: Francisco was a culture journalist for a long time. In 2005, he set aside his newspaper job and set out to create this foundation. It was an idea that he had been thinking about for several years. He wanted to create a project to recover the memory of what Armero had been. But he ran into a problem.
[Francisco]: I had a huge problem and it was that there wasn’t anything in the libraries, there was no…there was absolutely nothing, so I had to do it all from oral memory.
[David]: In other words, interviews that he transcribed and then compiled in an archive. To start, he put together days of remembrance with the survivors in different towns in the region. There they got together to talk about the past, to share stories and remember specific subjects like politics in Armero, the movie theatre, the architecture…
Armando Armero became very popular among people from Armero and more and more people were going to these days of remembrance.
With time, something strange started happening at these gatherings: survivors of the mudslide would approach him…
[Francisco]: And they would put a story in my pocket. “Look, take this.” I would go back to the hotel or to Bogotá: “I’m looking for my daughter, help me find her, I don’t know.”
[David]: There were names on those little pieces of paper. Stories about children who had disappeared, but whose relatives thought they had survived. Francisco didn’t know what to do with this. He would say:
[Francisco]: I’m doing an investigation into historical memory.
[David]: But stories kept coming to him…
[Francisco]: So, for example, a sister, a woman would say to me: “My little sister made it out of the tragedy alive because she was at a farm, at the Maracaibo ranch, where there’s a man called ‘the Mute.’”
[David]: Francisco was curious…
[Francisco]: Since I know the area: Look, Maracaibo ranch is over here, the path is over there, the farm is over there, I was looking for the man they call ‘The Mute’. “Listen, does this picture of a little girl mean anything to you?”. “Of course, we took that girl’s picture here at the farm, we gave her some clothes, we gave her some food and we handed her off to an aid worker.” And I said: “Damn, that woman is right.”
[David]: Rumor started to spread that Francisco was helping people look for the missing children of Armero…
[Francisco]: And so story after story started coming in and I had 40 stories and I said: “What do I do? Who is helping these people?” “No one. Who?” So I started…I started to see that the State hadn’t done anything. So I said “let’s see, what paths do I have to go down?”
[David]: At that moment, in 2012, the project was born—“The Lost Children of Armero: a cause that affects us all.”
The first thing he thought to do was connect the people who were looking for their children with the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, the ICBF, a public entity that exists to protect the rights of children and adolescents.
The mudslide in Armero took the whole country by surprise. There was no law or protocol that said what to do with minors in the event of a disaster of that magnitude. But the ICBF was present from the moment they started rescuing the children. They were responsible for registering them, housing them and guaranteeing that they were healthy and safe. And in theory, returning them to their families if they came to them.
The answers would be there. But in many cases, the people who sought out Francisco had already been through the ICBF. Some had even been making inquiries for more than 20 years.
So Francisco assembled the stories he had, which at that point was more than 200, and decided to go directly to the ICBF. They couldn’t turn a blind eye to so many cases.
[Francisco]: They told us to submit a proposal for the investigation.
[David]: A plan of action for the Institute and the Armando Armero Foundation to solve the cases together. So, they proposed…
[Francisco]: To investigate how the children were rescued, how…how the shelters were organized, that kind of thing.
[David]: Francisco suggested that the ICBF go through the towns in the country where the children who were rescued from the mudslide were taken. He also suggested they put up displays in town squares with the photos of the missing children.
[Francisco]: And then that way we could set it up for someone in some town to say: “Look, that’s the kid that a family took in way back when”; “that one is adopted.” Someone could recognize them.
[David]: The idea was to make these stories visible and for the people who took in children, the rescue workers, the volunteers….for them to remember and help clarify what had happened.
The Institute accepted. But Francisco asked them for something else: that they hand over the files from that period: the records and information about the rescued children.
[Francisco]: If you have files we’re going to sit down and compare them.
[David]: To compare that information with what they had collected. For example, in Sergio’s case, Martha Lucía López’s son, the story we heard in the first part of this series: if the ICBF had called her sister and had told her they had her nephew, what records are there of that? What happened to Sergio?
That information that the Institute had, supposedly it was in a red book.
[Francisco]: There’s always been talk of a red book in Ibagué. “It’s true, there is a red book, there is a red book.”
[David]: The information Francisco needed was in that book: the children’s stories. He asked the ICBF to send that book, to do it publicly, or tell him exactly where it was so he could go look for it. But the Institute was silent. He would only be able to see it 3 years later in 2015.
In those 3 years, he made his own book: He called it the white book. That was where he put together cases of missing children that came to him.
When he was finally able to compare the two files, the IBCF’s red book and his own foundation’s white book, he realized there was an inconsistency.
At first the ICBF had said there were 250 registered cases. It turned out there were fewer in the red book: just 179 cases. However, by that point, Francisco had gathered nearly 300 in his white book.
But on top that…
[Francisco]: From what we’ve analyzed in the red book and videos that were taken…many of the children who arrived at Ibagué are not registered and instead were quickly put up for adoption.
[David]: To Colombian families, but also families in other countries. And he found something else.
[Francisco]: They removed a lot of photos, and there are many records in which it’s apparent that they gave children over to people without documentation or people who were not the child’s mother or father.
[David]: People who said they were aunts and uncles or grandparents.
[Francisco]: So this book shows that, this is a liber non sancto, it’s not a very reliable book and that really demonstrates the…inefficiency of…of the State.
[David]: Francisco couldn’t understand why the Institute had taken so long to give him the book or why it seemed to be incomplete.
[Francisco]: I don’t know, I don’t know what they’re hiding. I don’t know what they’re trying to do here. That is a wound that Colombia bears that still hasn’t healed. But…but, well, from what we’ve seen here, the Institute isn’t really interested in helping.
[David]: I contacted the Institute so they could tell me their version of all this. They agreed. But they always said it would be in a week, then the next week and the next and so on… In the end, nothing ever came of it. In August of this year, 2017, the ICBF changed directors. I tried to talk to them again, but this time I didn’t even get a response.
So I decided to look somewhere else.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[David Greene]: Hey, thanks for listening, and I want to make sure you know about Up First. You can start your day with it tomorrow. Up First is the morning news podcast from NPR. When news moves fast, Up First is the quick morning update on what happened and what you need to start the day. Wake up with Up First tomorrow morning on the NPR One app and also wherever you listen to podcasts.
[Daniel]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Our producer David Trujillo tried to get in touch with the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare but they didn’t respond. So he set out to look for answers somewhere else and he found this person.
[Teresa Sabogal]: My name is Teresa Sabogal Correa, I’m an attorney. I worked for Family Welfare for 17 years, from 1980 to 1997.
[Daniel]: David will tell us the rest…
[David]: When I asked Teresa about the red book, this is what she told me:
You made a large portion of the red book that we’ve mentioned…
[Teresa]: I made it. It was me.
[David]: It was you?
[David]: Teresa Sabogal worked as a family advocate at the Institute’s headquarters in Ibagué at the time of the mudslide. Family advocates are lawyers that work on behalf of the country. Their job is to judicially protect children and adolescents. They deal with child custody when there’s a divorce. They are responsible for cases of child abuse. They approve adoptions and lots of other things.
In Armero, rescue work started the day after the accident and Teresa remembers that the director of the Institute at that time, Jaime Benítez ordered officials from 5 departments near the area…
[Teresa]: To go to Armero, to the shelters because the Red Cross was already working there, along with the Civil Defense, rescuing the children who were alone without their families.
[David]: Social workers, family advocates, people who do administrative work and technical support all went… They were all ready to help.
[Teresa]: They flew over the region, they went in a helicopter to look for children who had survived the tragedy.
[David]: They rescued children and brought them to hospitals all over the country. Many arrived alone. This is a recording from when the rescue efforts began.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: There are 157 wounded, 72 unharmed survivors, of whom 40 are children, 12 have been orphaned, without a father, mother or siblings, as has been said in a report released yesterday.
[David]: The ICBF seemed to have everything under control.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: The director of the Institute of Family Welfare, Dr. Jaime Benítez, has asked all hospital directors to return the children who have been brought to these centers to the regional office in Bogotá when they are found to be in good health. They will be placed in different centers belonging to the institution.
[David]: According to Teresa, at first, the children were brought to Bogotá and Ibagué. She and her team…
[Teresa]: Were ready to take in all of the children, to shelter them and register them, and be prepared to return them to their relatives when they arrived.
[David]: There were no norms, no protocols, nothing specific telling them how to act in this situation.
[Teresa]: The law couldn’t anticipate it. It was a tragedy that no one was planning for. It was an exceptional situation.
[David]: So they took what they had—decrees, general laws about protecting children—and they adapted them to the situation. And in all that improvisation, things like this happened:
[Francisco]: So, an 8 year old girl is carrying her 3 year old brother in her arms, they walk up Cerro de La Cruz and the rescue workers tell the girl: “Look, boys to the right, girls to the left.” And she says: “No, what about my brother?” They make her let go of her little brother, she sees her brother go up in a helicopter and then never sees him again.
[David]: Teresa wasn’t in the disaster area, but she was in Ibagué where she was in charge of recording the stories of the children who were arriving.
[Teresa]: If memory serves, there are 179 socio-familial stories that we later collected in a red paperback book.
[David]: The famous red book we mentioned before.
Francisco González recovered nearly 300 stories. And the ICBF director himself, Diego Molano, mentioned another figure, one that is much higher than 179. This is Manolo at an event for the Armando Armero Foundation.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO)
[Diego Molano]: The red book exists, we have located it. It has 250 records, 298 pages. And well, what we want to do is carry out a systematic exercise…
[David]: In other words, there are a lot of inconsistencies that up until now no one has been able to clear up. And it’s partially because the red book hadn’t been shared with anyone, not even with the families of the children who appear in it.
This was the first time that the existence of the book as publicly confirmed. But according to Teresa…
[Teresa]: It was never hidden, it was always our file, where we left a record and a memory of the activity during that period.
[David]: In other words, they made paper records —either handwritten or typed— and the few photos they took there, which obviously weren’t digital, were taped on the pages.
[Teresa]: I want to remind you that there were no cell phones back then, there was no funding at the Institute for cameras or video recording equipment and there were no digital archives. We weren’t even systematized back then, I mean, we didn’t even have computers.
[David]: And according to Teresa the book was the only place where they recorded the cases. But it’s hard to keep a book in good condition and with time it became fragile.
[Teresa]: The book is like that because it’s 32 years old. It’s a paper book. It’s in Ibagué which is a humid city. The photos have fallen out but they are being preserved there. At the root of this, they are keeping it like a treasure.
[David]: As soon as news of the mudslide got out, the ICBF started getting calls from people in Colombia and other countries who wanted to help those children. They were ready to adopt them. But the then-director of the Institute, Jaime Benítez went on TV saying…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Jaime Benítez]: With regards to the few that we have at Family Welfare who do not have family, we aren’t certain that they are orphans and until we have absolute certainty that they are orphans, we are not putting them up for adoption.
[David]: So, as a temporary measure, some of the children were taken in by what the ICBF calls “friend homes” or “substitutes.” These are individuals or families that volunteer to take the children into their homes while the Institute prepares its facilities, searches for the children’s families or pushes the adoption process along.
Right before the mudslide, a lot of people showed up at Family Welfare offering their homes as “friend homes.” But a few months later, when the time came to return the children…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: Family Welfare’s order to those having custody of the children to turn them over was not well received on the part of the “friend homes” of Ibagué.
[David]: According to this report from Noticiero TV Hoy, some refused to return the children. In that same report, they interviewed this woman.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Woman from a “friend home”]: I took a two and half year old girl into my home as a “friend home.” Aside from her physical troubles, the girl suffered terrible trauma. At night I served a hanging post for that girl because she thought I was a pole and she slept holding onto me. Because Family Welfare doesn’t have enough staff to do what I did at night, as a mother.
[David]: Many of the people who kept these children didn’t go through the process of a formal adoption. But no one has received legal action as a result of this.
How many children in Armero were left orphaned? How many were reunited with their families? The truth is we don’t have an exact idea. This audio comes from Noticiero Nacional, at the start of a media campaign to reunite the children with their families a few weeks after the mudslide.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: 536 of the 1,967 minors that arrived at Family Welfare have already been reclaimed by their relatives. The rest will be entered into the national rediscovery campaign which consists of locating the relatives of the children remaining at the Institute, wherever they may be. They will also search for the parents of children hospitalized in different parts of the country.
[David]: Teresa told me that all of the surviving children ended up…
[Teresa]: At the Tolima office. Since the tragedy was in Tolima, relatives from all over the country could go to see their children, identify them, recognize them and reclaim them. That’s how it was done.
[David]: The children appeared on TV, radio, newspapers and they gave out phone numbers and addresses so that people who were interested could contact them. Teresa insists that…
[Teresa]: There were a lot of older kids, who knew their names, their ages and where they come from. We didn’t have any really little ones, babies, who couldn’t talk.
[David]: I saw the ICBF videos that were aired on TV and even though we don’t have permission to use them here, they do exist. And there is an inconsistency with what Teresa is saying. In videos from the time of the event, there are also babies that don’t have personal information, NNs, “no names” or John Does.
So, what did they need in order to send these children to their supposed families? They had to prove parentage. DNA testing wasn’t common at that time. But there was another test.
[Teresa]: At that time, they did a test called “RH factors and blood groups” which was not completely surefire, it gave… I think it was a 70% probability of paternity.
[David]: It only worked with the mom and the dad. So in order to prove another family relationship, people had to bring…
[Teresa]: The child’s birth certificate. That was the first thing.
[David]: Obviously, the problem was that most of these records were lost in the mudslide, and not everyone kept copies.
[Teresa]: But the people sometimes still had documents: well…photos.
[David]: And that was enough to get the children back.
According to Teresa, every time a child was returned, they always included in the red book…
[Teresa]: Who came for the child, what was that person’s name, what was their ID number, their signature and the photos.
[David]: And according to Teresa, very few of the surviving children of Armero were left with them. She figures it was around 10 kids.
Those 10 children were declared abandoned, which at that time meant they could be adopted legally.
[Teresa]: Thinking back with all of our colleagues and co-workers at that time, only 7 children, more or less, were adopted. Seven children to Colombian families. It’s not true that they were sent to families that…to foreign couples.
[David]: But the figures don’t line up well. According to the TV report we heard earlier, almost 1,500 were entered into the rediscovery campaign, but in the red book there are only 179 cases.
But what about the other children? How do you go from 1,500 to fewer than 200? The explanation that Francisco gives is that a lot of the children were taken to other cities and didn’t just go to Ibagué. They even were put up for adoption in other offices of the Institute.
But Teresa tells me that didn’t happen with Armero.
[Teresa]: It’s not true that planes came to take away Colombian children. It’s not true that children were stolen en masse. It’s not true that there were massive illegal adoptions. It’s not true.
[David]: But she does recognize that in the chaos after the mudslide there may have been irregularities…
[Teresa]: And I have always accepted the possibility that someone could have ended up with a child, someone who went up the site of the tragedy and… It’s possible but there’s no proof, no evidence, no account of such a thing.
[David]: She doesn’t deny that mistakes were made.
[Teresa]: Of course there had to have been many mistakes. Who’s saying there weren’t? And there also may have been a better way to respond to this tragedy.
[David]: But Teresa defends what she did with her team.
[Teresa]: We did everything humanly possible and the best we could, omaybe with some mistakes. I already said so. But 32 years later in a comfortable office, you can’t say: “Oh but why didn’t you do that… But it seems odd to me that you haven’t looked at this.” No. Unfortunately…we weren’t able to do more.
[David]: Francisco agrees with Teresa: there were mistakes. But he doesn’t think it was a few mistakes here and there.
[Francisco]: We have close to 25 cases of adopted children who are in the United States, Belgium, others in the Netherlands, in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru…they’re adopted from Armero too. Every time there’s a report on TV or something in the media, a new case always comes in.
[David]: Several of them knew they were from Armero. Others learned later on. And when they find out, many go to Family Welfare looking for more information, but they find that the records have been lost or their information is missing from the records.
And to make things worse, in Colombia adoption records can only been seen by adopted children when they turn 18. No one else can see them. The law says it’s to protect these people’s right to privacy and their right to have a completely new life after being adopted.
That’s ICBFs justification for not providing the foundation with the documents.
Some of the missing information is explained by a law in 1975 that said that adoption records can’t list the names of biological parents. The idea was to protect their right to anonymity and respect their decision. That law existed until 1989, meaning that people adopted in that 15 year period don’t have crucial information about their past.
And there are cases in which there is no information at all. No record of the adoption. Nothing.
Since Francisco started mobilizing his foundation on social media, many people like this have contacted him…
(SOUNDBITES FROM VIDEOS)
[Felipe Salama]: Hi, my name is Felipe Salama. I’m an Armero survivor. And I was an NN (John Doe).
[Adelaida Hernández]: My name is Adelia Hernández, my adoptive family tells me I was adopted after the tragedy in Armero. I want to know what my roots are.
[Johana Benavides]: My name is Johana Ximena Benavides Parada. I was adopted. My mom’s name is Herminia Rubio Villalba. She was from Armero, or is from Armero.
[David]: So, in addition to the white book where Francisco started collecting the stories of relatives looking for their children, Francisco made a green book where he put the stories of children who were adopted from Armero. And he makes videos that he posts on Facebook with them.
(SOUNDBITES FROM VIDEOS)
[Derly Calderón]: My name now is Derly Katherine Calderón, I think I was abducted from Armero, from the tragedy at Armero, Tolima. I’m 32 years old. I’m looking for my family.
[Óscar Perdomo]: My name is Oscar Mauricio Perdomo Patiño, but that’s not my real name because it was changed. I am looking for my family. I think it’s possible that I’m from Armero.
[Norma Tabares]: I’m Norma Tabares. I think I was adopted from Armero and I want to find my roots, I want to find a relative who knows…who can help me discover who I am.
[David]: Some of these videos have pictures of them from the time of their adoption.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO)
[Lizeth Salinas]: Lizeth Salinas. I was adopted from Armero. They took me to Murillo, Tolima. This was when I was really little.
[David]: And of course, they aren’t children anymore.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO)
[Ilse Peña]: My name is Ilsa Peña. I am looking for María Adelina Orjuela. She my biological mother. I’m also looking for my biological grandmother, Benilda Orjueala and my 5 older siblings. I’m currently 33 years old.
[David]: And adoptees from other countries have also come to Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE FROM VIDEO)
[Heidy Dibella]: My name is Heidy Dibella, I was adopted after the Armero tragedy. Now I live in Italy. I’m looking for any relative I may have.
[Jennifer]: Hi, my name is Jennifer. I was born on November 6th, 1985 in Armero. This is one of the earliest photos I have from when I was young. I was adopted in 1987 when I was a just over a year old.
[Diana]: My name is Diana, I was adopted from the Armero tragedy. I’m looking for my relatives. If you have any information, please, with the Armando Armero Foundation. Thank you.
[David]: Even though so many cases have surfaced and continue to come forward, it’s hard to make connections. Because there’s only one scientific way to be sure if two people are related: comparing their DNA.
Francisco worked it out so that Labratorio Yunis Turbay, one of the more renown labs in the country, would do DNA testing for free. And that helps a lot because those tests are expensive. In Colombia a standard parent—child study costs $150, not counting additional tests they may need and not everyone can afford them.
But the time may come that the lab can’t afford all of the cases that continue coming to light and it will become more complicated to give out these tests. Franciso thinks the solution is for the State to take on the task because…
[Francisco]: These families from Armero are victims of the State. Because the State didn’t do what it should have done.
[David]: And it continues not to.
[Daniel]: Since 2012, when they started taking the DNA tests, there have only been 2 matches. The first was in 2016 between 2 sisters. Lorena Santos and Jaqueline Vásquez. And in August of this year, 2017, a son was reunited with his biological father.
There was a third case in 2012 but it was very curious: the adoptee seemed to be registered as an orphan surviving the Armero mudslide and his whole life he thought he had been born there. But his biological parents recognized him in the foundation’s videos and it turned out that he was from Bogotá and he had actually gotten lost near his home in 1985 when he was 5 years old.
If you think you were adopted from Armero or if you have information that could help someone else to reconnect with their family, you can contact the Armando Armero Foundation on Facebook or at armandoarmero.com.
David Trujillo is a producer with Radio Ambulante and lives in Bogotá. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and me. Mixing and sound design by Ryan Sweikert.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Andrés Azpiri, Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.