After they found their mother's body, they didn't look back. Edwin Perez, who was 14, knew there was nothing he and big brother Cesar could do. So they ran straight to the closest Colombian police station, crying and scared and angry but not stopping.
When their aunt, Elsa Roa, came to the funeral and asked where they wanted to live, they told her right away: the United States.
The only thing of their mother's that they have now, in their aunt and uncle's house in Rockville, is a red album full of photographs, the first a snapshot of the Statue of Liberty. But three years after her death, they are on the verge of a dream she planted when they were toddlers.
Maria Judith Roa always wanted her two boys to go to college one day. To do so, they had to adapt to a new life thousands of miles from home, learn a foreign language in a matter of months, and, above all, stick together.
"We used to dream," Edwin said, " 'Wouldn't this be cool? We could do this, we could do that.' "
Growing up in Colombia, the brothers were best friends. They played soccer and basketball together, helped their mother stitch clothing and sell fruit by the side of the road. They shared the same bed and the same cake for their birthdays, a month apart. When one of their mother's boyfriends cheated on her, when Edwin was about 5, they both ran outside and threw rocks at his car as he drove away.
Cesar was the one always in scrapes, getting chased by a bull, flipping himself over a soccer goal and breaking the bones in his hand, listening to music and hanging out with friends instead of studying. His brother was more disciplined, much more quiet and shy.
They knew, without any hope of money for college, that they wouldn't have much of a chance to achieve their goal.
They knew, too, that it was dangerous in Colombia, with bombings and disappearances and decades of civil unrest.
One day, their mother was away at work and they were outside chasing a goat when they heard an explosion half a mile away from the old wooden farm building where they lived. "WOOOOM!" Cesar said, "and everything shaking, and people shooting up and down the road, and people were yelling . . . then a lot of military cars came really fast."
Then one night in June 2002, when they were 14 and 15, they heard their mother call them at their home. She sounded scared. Three men had come in with revolvers and a semiautomatic pistol, Cesar said.
She was crying and saying, " 'Why are you doing this? I haven't done anything wrong,' " Edwin said. "They said, 'Oh, no, no, no, it's nothing important -- we're just going to take you up the hill to talk to our boss.' "
"My brother wanted to go with them," Cesar said. "He said, 'Let's go, let's go!' I said, 'Do you want to get killed?' "
About an hour later, their mother hadn't come back. They heard shots.
It couldn't be her, they told each other.
They crept toward the hill, thinking they would throw rocks or fight the men somehow. But they hesitated, scared, thinking of the guns. They hid in their house, then went out again to look for her in the middle of the night. Again they turned back, barred the door and waited.
The next morning, they found her.
She was on the road near their house. She had been shot several times in the head, and her skull was smashed in with a rock, they said.
That's when they ran to get the police.
At the funeral in Bogota, a neighbor brought a little packet of tissue paper. Inside were pieces of skin and brain that someone had picked up from the road, Elsa Roa said. "We had to open the casket and put it in there," she said.
Leaving It Behind
Like most violent deaths in Colombia, Judith Roa's has not been solved. The death certificate says she was murdered, but the police investigation into who killed her and why stopped last year, and the case was filed away.
The brothers have nightmares. But they have left Colombia behind. They almost never talk about what happened. Elsa Roa said she believes leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia killed her sister. But the boys said they don't need to know the reason. "It doesn't matter," Edwin said.
To get the boys out of Colombia, their aunt and her husband, Benjamin Perez, worked to adopt them, which took a year of filling out forms and pleading with officials. They worried about money and about raising two teenagers they hardly knew while expecting their first child. Partway through the year, Elsa Roa got so mad at Cesar for failing classes in Bogota that she told him they would leave him there.
Edwin said he wouldn't come to the United States unless they both could.
In August 2003, the adoption was approved. The boys changed their last name to Perez and got their green cards. They knew only a few sentences of English.
A New Life
When they arrived at their aunt and uncle's house in Rockville, there were 24 days before school started. They stayed inside nearly every day, cramming and doing language drills from early in the morning until late at night.
At Richard Montgomery High School, most people didn't know what the brothers had left behind. But teachers and other students helped them right away, charmed by their smiles, intelligence and determination.
Marcia Lackland, head of the English as a second language program, encouraged the brothers to take the harder classes that would help them get into college. Career counselor Doreen Rubin brought them scholarship applications.
Their aunt and uncle were strict, limiting them to one hour of free time a night. Friends lent them money and brought them clothes. A retired couple in Rockville, Donald and Mitzie Solberg, gave them encouragement, rides to night classes and, later, $10,000 scholarships.
Both brothers have dark brown eyes and quick smiles, but it's easy to tell which is which: Edwin Perez keeps his black hair trim and his polo shirts tucked in. Cesar Perez spikes his hair with gel and leaves his T-shirts loose.
Their aunt kept getting mad at Cesar, telling him not to have a girlfriend and to study more. He was a year behind his younger brother in high school after the difficult final year in Bogota. But he wanted to graduate with his brother, who started at Richard Montgomery as a junior.
Edwin was totally focused, teachers said. He made the honor roll and studied calculus on his own time so he could take the Advanced Placement test.
And Cesar worked through night and Saturday classes to make up his lost year and squeaked out the last few credits. The brothers graduated June 10, and in snapshots they stand arm in arm in their robes, grinning like crazy.
When summer ends, Edwin will begin classes at the University of Maryland, where he wants to study engineering, and Cesar will start at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.
At the U-Md. orientation this month, Edwin dropped his backpack on a mattress in a cinderblock dorm room and beamed. He had just picked out his classes, taken a math placement test and immediately resolved to retake it to qualify for a tougher course. He's thinking about graduate school and beyond.
"This is our dream, to be successful," Cesar said, just what their mother wanted.
Special correspondent Andrea Dominguez in Bogota contributed to this report.