Colombian man's search for missing brother ends in joy after 32 years

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Three-year-old Jhonatan was playing with his brother Alfonso, 7, in their garden in western Bogota on Sept. 25, 1988, when a family friend approached inviting him to buy candy.

Jhonatan went with the man, vanishing without a trace for 32 years.

Their middle brother Juan Jimenez, then 5, was looking out the window when the man took his brother. He says he grew up surrounded by Alfonso’s guilt and their mother Ana’s grief over the disappearance.

Six years later, in 1994, the man returned to the house and alleged the boys’ stepfather had asked him to take the child. The family would not discuss the stepfather further and Reuters was unable to contact him. The man said - falsely - that Jhonatan had been adopted in the United States.

Juan vowed to find his brother.

“That was the obsession for me,” said Juan, who moved to the United States in 2007 to work as an actor. “I grew up seeing Mommy suffering so much ... that was my big desire, to try to do something in this situation.”

Years later, Juan found the man who had taken Jhonatan on social media, but the man died before they could meet.

Then he received an email from DNA company MyHeritage about a competition it was holding to win a free DNA testing kit for the most compelling family story.

“I start praying and praying ... And that email popped up in my computer,” he said. “So I sent the story of my brother. They replied to me: they approved me.”

Juan, a devout Christian, said God told him that once he completed the DNA test, his brother would do the same and contact him. “And that’s exactly how it happened.”

In 2019, Juan got a message from a 34-year-old lawyer in Norway, who said he had been adopted at age 4 and was trying to find his biological family.

“The (DNA) result suggests you are my half brother, uncle or nephew,” the message said. “It seems I am closer to finding more information about what happened in Colombia in the 80s.”

Juan went to Norway in January 2020 to meet Jhonatan, now John. The brothers then returned to Colombia.

“I always wanted to find my family,” said Jhonatan. “It was hard for me going through all my childhood, not knowing about my biological family.”

Jhonatan grew up knowing he had been adopted from Colombia, but had been told his biological parents abandoned him, taking him to an orphanage in the city of Ibague. He only learned about his abduction when he met his biological family.

Trapped in Colombia by a coronavirus lockdown on a second visit last year, Jhonatan studied Spanish and celebrated all the birthdays he had missed with his Colombian family, including with delighted mother Ana.

Ana says she never lost hope of seeing Jhonatan again and knew in her heart he was alive and would return someday.

“We can never get back the 32 years we missed,” Jhonatan said. “But we can make the next 32 the most amazing moments in our lives.”

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis