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Yo Soy: A Program to Protect Minors against Illegal Armed Groups and Criminal Gangs

Yo Soy: A Program to Protect Minors against Illegal Armed Groups and Criminal Gangs

By Dialogo
November 09, 2012

War has raged against the weak; women and children are still the main group of victims affected by any sort of armed action. Today, after 50 years of confrontation, Colombia is still in the spotlight of international organizations, such as the U.N. Security Council, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and several NGOs, due to the ongoing indications of the likelihood for war crimes to happen, such as the recruitment and use of minors by illegal armed groups, as well as criminal gangs that collaborate with drug traffickers.

Several reports have been written by some of these institutions and social researchers interested in helping to measure these kinds of war crimes, the nature of the perpetrators, the methods used to commit this serious crime, even to establish the geographical coordinates of this problem.

With the involvement of several Colombian government institutions, CONPES 3673 was created in 2010, a written document that laid the foundation for a comprehensive policy to prevent the recruitment and use of children and adolescents. However, there is more that can be done to improve the institutional synergy processes, like implementing preventative protocols, especially direct contact in vulnerable sectors of the population through channels which would allow early identification of risk, as well as reporting and detaining people and illegal structures linked to this serious crime.

Part of the challenge of addressing the problem of forced recruitment, is to recognize that the solution is not behind just one person or institution. That is how “‘Yo Soy’: Hope, Love, and Family” was born, an initiative which seeks to reflect the basic background on which minors can set the foundations of their physical and psychological development within society within their own families. But, what should be done when that family does not exist, or does not fit traditional patterns? The answer can be found in the inter-institutional coordination of efforts and approaches to the problem.

The Trust Factor

One of the most common criticisms against the State is related to the lack of coherent and anticipated response in the event of any social contingency. In the case of forced recruitment, the magnitude of these demands is even more dramatic. Depending on the source, recruitment figures in Colombia fluctuate between 5,000 and 18,000 underage combatants.

The main goal of the “Yo Soy” (I Am) initiative is to generate necessary conditions to promote the empowerment and participation of the community, and to promote the institutional presence and coordination within the framework of the National Consolidation Plan and the National Development Plan “Prosperity for All,” aiming at diminishing underage combatants’ recruitment in illegal armed groups or criminal organizations.

The “Yo Soy” initiative interacts with communities, national and regional authorities, educators, social organizations, child services, and of course, with children and adolescents.

It shows minors the persuasion and deceitful tactics used by illegal armed groups and criminal gangs, as a way of portraying how these groups recruit minors. The person responsible for implementing the program applies a methodology focused on life projects and strengthening of values, seeking to reduce the possibility that membership to an illegal armed group is considered a viable way of life or an alternative option.

The methodology also includes voluntary training for teachers, parents, local authorities, and interested parties with educational material to be used inside the classroom as a practical guide for teaching values and, of course, with the vision of helping to strengthen the protective surroundings for children and teenagers; in other words, to facilitate the use of operations which reflect the topic of prevention from a perspective of integrated efforts and sustainable actions.

“Yo Soy” began implementation in March 2012, in the southern region of Tolima, where necessary coordination started with the district government, as well as with municipalities in the south of the district. This region successfully reached 4,022 children and adolescents, about 20% of the student population of the four municipalities in question. After the experience in Tolima, the project was transferred to the Meta region, where local authorities headed by the district governor were also present, reaching over 4,200 children and teenagers.

The Results

“Yo Soy” has contributed to generating the necessary conditions for interagency coordination at a regional level. This project has been carried out in coordination with the Territorial Consolidation Administrative Unit (UAECT), the national and regional ICBF, child services, governors, mayors, Military Forces, and other regional entities where the program has been implemented.

To continue confronting this situation in the future it is necessary tp continue gathering efforts in which the defense sector can contribute to promoting solutions that will remain in the territory and will be explicit within the State’s offer. A single program does not have the answers to educational or developmental needs for children and teenagers to find alternatives to violence. The Colombian government’s commitment aims to continue supporting these action trends:

- Engage governors, mayors and institutions in a common agenda to define responsibilities and work together to face the problem.

- Create an inter-institutional divisional action plan with the allocation of financial and human resources to engage the government and the community to reach common goals.

- Create a regional reference point that allows measuring, evaluating, analyzing, and proposing real solutions to the problems of forced recruitment through a tracking and monitoring system designed for this purpose.