Eastern Antioquia, Colombia—In late 2001, Sandra Mira was kidnapped while riding a bus with her six-year-old daughter through rural Colombia. Paramilitaries in camouflage uniforms stopped the bus and forced both to disembark. They tied up Sandra, then returned her daughter to the bus. When the girl arrived in San Carlos, the town where the family lived, she asked someone to call her grandmother, Pastora Mira.

In San Carlos, everyone calls her Doña Pastora—a sign of respect for the elderly. Pastora is 58, and her short hair is graying, but more importantly, since 2004 she has been repeatedly elected to the municipal council, without ever having campaigned. She is warm and often greets women with a hug and a diminutive of their name—Teresa becomes Teresita—or a term of endearment such as beautiful or princess. She does not speak loudly, but decisively, and...

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