BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Before a car bomb exploded at a Colombia police academy this week, killing 21 people, the young cadets inside were busy pushing forward dreams of serving their country and helping lift their families out of poverty.
Maria Corredor, a tailor who works at the academy mending uniforms, has the distinct image in her mind of 22-year-old Cesar Ojeda blowing her a kiss as he walked joyfully through the campus Thursday morning.
Twenty-year-old Diego Alejandro Molina had just wrapped up a ceremony and was changing out of his honor guard uniform, which the star athlete wore with pride while fulfilling a lifelong goal of becoming an officer.
Others like Ecuadorian Erika Chico, 21, were still inside their barracks, preparing for what they thought would be an uneventful day.
"They were just kids," Corredor said, recalling those killed in the blast. "It became a hell within seconds."
Relatives of cadets killed in the South American nation's deadliest attack in 15 years are now enduring the cruel task of trying to identify their loved ones, many of whom were so badly mutilated they can only be identified through DNA. Many hailed from impoverished, conflict-ridden parts of Colombia and represented the prospect of a more prosperous future for their families.
"They're young people whose dreams have been cut short because of the actions of some violent people," said Victor Quiroga, a former teacher at the academy who helped comfort injured cadets in the bombing's aftermath.
According to authorities, a one-armed explosives expert belonging to the country's last remaining rebel group — the National Liberation Army, or ELN — carried out the bombing that also left over 70 wounded, some critically.
Investigators say Jose Rojas entered through a side gate used for deliveries, driving in quickly after it opened for a few motorcycles to exit. He then drove into the heart of the school, where the 1993-Nissan pickup loaded with 80 kilograms (175 pounds) of pentolite exploded.
Rojas was later identified through the fingerprints on his one-remaining hand.
As of Friday, Colombia's forensic services office had only definitively identified four bodies as relatives gathered at the school, waiting for answers and collecting personal belonging like laptops and uniforms, remnants of the young lives left behind.
"We're going to carry with us the image of how he was in life," said Jhon Diego Molina, the father of Diego Alejandro Molina. "Because we still don't know how they're going to return him to us, or what condition he is in."
The General Santander Police Academy in Bogota drew cadets from far corners of Colombia and throughout South America, all attracted by the prospect of becoming officers after three years of training.
Jonathan Suescun, 21, was the son of a couple who makes a living selling empanadas in a small town located in Meta, a department in central Colombia where for many years paramilitaries and guerrilla groups waged a deadly war.
Gabriel Osorio, a close family friend, said Suescun was a standout baseball player who won a scholarship to attend the academy. He'd recently returned home for the holidays and spoke with Osorio about his dreams for the future.
"He was going to be a professional and move his family forward," Osorio said.
The attack has jolted a nation that was starting to let its guard down after decades of conflict between leftist guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and the state. The young cadets had grown up in the later years of the conflict, not knowing the worst of the bloodshed, and likely thinking they were entering the police service in a new era in which crime in most major cities has diminished.
Corredor, the tailor, was hemming a female cadet's skirt when she heard an explosion so forceful it broke a window in her workshop. She ran outside and saw an apocalyptic scene: Cadets rushing to help badly injured comrades as smoke filled the air.
It was a traumatic sight for a woman who the cadets liked to call their "school mom."
Many confided their hopes and fears to Corredor. They also sought her guidance in treating simple ailments that, being young and on their own for the first time, they did not know how to remedy. She spent countless afternoons chatting with them over cups of herbal tea.
Ojeda, the son of a transit worker from a city in Santander, a department in northeastern Colombia, had a jovial personality, she remembered. Chico, the Ecuadorian cadet, was beautiful and a bit shy.
"They all loved their profession," Corredor recalled.
Jhon Diego Molina, the father of Diego Alejandro Molina, said his son had trained with two of the country's most popular soccer clubs as a goalkeeper, but fell two inches short of the height requirement to enter the league.
So, the young man with a handsomely chiseled face decided to pursue his other long-harbored goal of becoming a police officer.
He entered the school 18 months ago, quickly rising to the rank of brigadier as an early recognition of his natural leadership skills.
On the day of the attack, Jhon Diego Molina, a former government official in the family's hometown in Colombia's coffee growing region, searched in exasperation for his son. He visited three hospitals before reaching the devastating conclusion he had likely perished. Both he and his son's mother have provided blood samples to help identify his remains.
On Friday, as he waited to receive his son's belongings, Jhon Diego Molina said he was trusting Colombia's government to ensure no more families have to endure what he has.
"These types of events often generate more hate in people," he said. "But we don't want to cause ourselves more harm. With what they've done, that's enough."