BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The explosion was heard throughout Colombia.
Seven soldiers were killed by a bomb carried by a minor acting on behalf of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the department of Norte de Santander on June 28. The blast killed the 17-year-old boy, who was transporting the explosive, and injured the girl whom the terrorist group forced to escort the bomber.
The boy and his female accomplice, who is being identified as “Kayla,” have become symbols of a shocking trend in which Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and ELN guerrillas are forcing “tread lightly” minors to carry out attacks – often using explosives – against law enforcement and military officials in the departments of Norte de Santander, Cauca and Nariño.
“Children are being trained by the FARC and the ELN to be experts in this type of attack,” said Gen. Luis Alberto Pérez, the drug enforcement director for the National Police. “Their training is based on their ability to go without food and sleep. The minors also come from rural areas, so they are usually barefoot – hence their name.”
“Kayla,” 18, has been placed in state custody because authorities suspect she’s been involved in numerous terrorist attacks, according to the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF).
“‘Kayla’ cannot be protected and will have to answer for her actions before authorities,” said Diego Molano, ICBF’s director.
Colombian Army officials said terrorist groups are abducting minors from their residences and training them in combat techniques, such as how to navigate jungle terrain, use weapons and apply paint to camouflage themselves so they can get close to their targets.
Col. Eliecer Camacho, the police commander in the department of Norte de Santander, said “tread lightly” children are trained for about eight months in rural areas “where they undergo hard training that’s almost inhumane.”
Terrorists make sure the children’s feet are toughened, so they can “step on thorns, glass and stones very quietly so they can kill members of security forces,” Camacho said.
Pérez said the FARC and ELN are using minors to carry out attacks because officials are not very suspicious of younger people, which is what happened in the June attack in Norte de Santander.
“Authorities cannot hear their soft footsteps,” he said. “The children are given large-caliber weapons with armor-piercing bullets, and most importantly, they do not have to pay children very much money. The children have no real sense of the risks they are taking.”
Carolina Lozada, a specialist in international law at Externado University, said “tread lightly” minors are being used in attacks more frequently.
“Increasingly, the terrorist groups are breaking more and more laws, and their supposed intentions to protect the interests of Colombian citizens are just an excuse to commit crimes against humanity and so they can traffic narcotics,” she said “No doubt, the FARC and ELN have used despicable methods in the past, but this new practice means their techniques are ‘evolving.’ These groups know no bounds and they should be called what they are: terrorists.”
Since 1999, about 5,000 children have been involved in the country’s internal conflict, according to the ICBF, which offers treatment and education opportunities to former “tread lightly” children so they can be reintegrated into society.
The National Learning Service (SENA) offers free educational programs to children at the ICBF and those in foster care.
“What the terrorists groups are doing to these minors is a flagrant violation of international human rights,” Molano said. “We demand children and adolescents be left out of this conflict. They should never be exposed to this sort of situation, taken away from their families, forced to do adult work, forced to use weapons, care for hostages and subjected to practices that violate their rights and damage their lives.”