Colombian Army Frees Three Minors
By Myriam Ortega/Diálogo March 23, 2018On February 12, 2018, two young men arrived in the rural part of Puerto Concordia, a municipality in the department of Meta, in central Colombia, seeking help from members of the Colombian National Army to break away from the Gulf Clan criminal group. Members of the José Joaquín París Ricaurte Infantry Battalion, located in San José del Guaviare, immediately deployed to the area to restore the minors’ rights.
“It was reported to the competent authorities, the Police for Children and Adolescents, the Family Police Station, and the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare, to begin the process of restoring these children’s rights,” said to Diálogo Colombian National Army Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Andrés Castillo Quintero, commander of the José Joaquín París Ricaurte Infantry Battalion. “These young people, aged 16 and 17, were tricked into joining the criminal organization.”
The minors stated they didn’t know it was a terrorist group and that they were promised contracts for agricultural labor. “But it wasn’t farm work. It was [only later] that they told them [they would be] part of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [the Gulf Clan] and that, from then on, they were paramilitaries,” Lt. Col. Castillo said.
“They had to submit to all the rules,” Colombian National Army Colonel Federico Mejía Torres, commander of the 22nd Jungle Brigade, told Diálogo. “If they wanted to leave or desert, a war council would be waiting for them, and that war council means death.” After eight days and despite the risk, when left unattended, the young men took a chance and headed for the highway, boarded a bus, and met with military units.
The second case involved a minor recruited by dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish). “This young man was from an indigenous family and [was] there for a year. He was promised a salary of $540 per month and health benefits for his family,” Col. Mejía said. The FARC didn’t fulfill either of those promises. Upon deserting, the young man had the full support of Joint Task Force Omega troops in the department of Guaviare.
Children and adolescents in the armed conflict
The National Center for Historical Memories, a Colombian governmental institution, notes in “An Ageless War” report that 16,879 children had been recruited by various criminal organizations as of 2017. “In regions where illegal groups are present, there is limited education available, families live in poverty, and illegal crops tend to be found. Illegal armed groups exploit such conditions of vulnerability to lure in minors with the promise of earning income for their families,” the report indicates.
“In recent weeks, [we] made significant captures of remnant FARC groups, and others demobilized,” Col. Mejía said. “They say, ‘What have I gotten myself into here? Year after year, I'm not earning anything, and all of the proceeds from the extortion, narcotrafficking, and tons [of gold and drugs] that are shipped along the rivers; all that is [for] guerrilla leaders.’”
In addition, guerrillas face the difficulties of life in the mountains, enduring bad weather, mosquitoes, long days of hiking while hungry, and being far from their families. “Using information provided by the Humanitarian Assistance Group for the Demobilized, we know that from 2016 to today [March 2018], they’ve [rescued] 21 minors who were recruited by remnant guerrilla groups led by Miguel Santillana, alias Gentil Duarte, and Gregario Vera, alias Iván Mordisco,” Col. Mejía said.
“We campaign with the Humanitarian Assistance Group for the Demobilized, visiting schools, offering training opportunities to children at various educational institutions, and holding talks to [prevent] the forced recruitment of these minors,” Lt. Col. Castillo said. “We also did radio broadcasts via Army radio stations so that minors aren’t won over by these organizations.”
The Colombian government and the Colombian Military Forces promote the voluntary eradication of crops through the National Comprehensive Plan for Illicit Crop Substitution, which fosters the rule of law and offers new opportunities. “That way young people no longer have the mentality of going out to scrape [collect] coca,” Lt. Col. Castillo concluded.