More than 160 police officers were sent to search for a group of 16 missing – Copyright AFP Federico PARRA
Maria Villamizar feared the worst when she learned that 16 people were missing in the Venezuelan mountain town of La Grita, a famous meeting place for Catholic pilgrims near the Colombian border.
“It was shocking because we’ve never heard of anything like this here,” Villamizar, a civil servant in a farming town of 90,000, told AFP Friday.
More than 160 police officers, using dogs and drones, were sent to search for the group after they went missing on August 22 when they went into religious seclusion, leaving their cell phones to avoid being disturbed.
Local media branded the group “religious fanatics” and a cult of “aliens” awaiting the “end of the world”.
Officers searched the mountains for days before announcing on Thursday that the group, which included the 20-day-old baby, had been located and was safe and sound at a farm called El Rodeo.
According to Jesnardo Canal, a local police officer, the agents showed group videos on their phones of local residents expressing concern about them.
“The kids innocently said they were famous, but the adults were ashamed,” Kanal said, and many apologized.
“They were surprised. The last thing they thought about was all this turmoil going on.”
All 16 people were transferred back to La Grita early Friday morning and underwent medical and psychological evaluations, police said.
The news caused relief at La Grita.
“Thank God, they are all right,” Villamizar said at a local church, standing next to tall stained-glass windows and the figure of Jesus Christ, to whom local Catholics attribute numerous miracles.
“There was anxiety” and “very crazy theories,” said Davis Marquez, 30, a church deacon.
“It was a great joy for us that the lost people who live in La Grita and its environs found themselves,” he said.
“Wherever you go” in the city, people were talking about the missing group, said Maria Isabelle Rolon, 53, at her street stall in front of the basilica, where she sells paintings and holy postcards.
“It wasn’t a game”
Some parents expressed outrage that their children were taken to the retreat.
The father of six minors in the group turned to police for help when he was unable to contact them, police told AFP.
Another parent said that their 13-year-old child went on a retreat without their permission.
“It wasn’t a show,” said Yalen Gutierrez, the 13-year-old’s aunt. “It wasn’t a game, it was a missing child.”
After a few days of unrest, calm returned to La Grita.
The city is an important agricultural center in Venezuela and has a certain mystique for Catholic parishioners.
Every year on August 6, the city receives hundreds of pilgrims who go to “thank” Christ of La Grita for his “mercy”.
The locals are “deeply religious people,” said Juan Escalante, mayor of the municipality of Jaurega, to which La Grita belongs.
“It’s important that we welcome these families with open arms.”