BOGOTA — Although the intensity of Colombia’s long-running civil conflict has diminished over the past decade, a new study outlines one particularly devastating trend: Marxist guerrillas and drug trafficking gangs are increasingly recruiting children by force. The study estimates that more than 40 percent of the country’s guerrillas are children. In 2001, Colombian officials put that figure at about 30 percent.
In addition, the report said more than half of the members in the so-called bandas criminales — drug trafficking groups made up largely of former right-wing paramilitary fighters who demobilized in the 2000s — are minors. That compares to a 40 percent child warrior rate for the now-defunct paramilitaries, the report said.
Released last week, the 120-page study was authored by Natalia Springer, a Colombian expert on international law and human rights. In the absence of clear data about the recruitment of minors, she and about 80 fellow investigators spent four years interviewing nearly 500 demobilized child warriors. Besides focusing on gun-toting kids, the report also estimated that at least 100,000 children labor in drug production and other facets of Colombia’s illegal economy.
“This is a humanitarian emergency,” Springer said in a telephone interview with Diálogo. “The level of forced recruitment of children is extremely high.”
Government disputes study’s conclusions
Diego Molano, director of the Colombian government’s Family Welfare Institute which is in charge of protecting children, questioned the report’s finding that the country currently has 18,000 child warriors. But he also admitted that the government lacks solid figures of its own. “What’s important is that no child should participate in the armed conflict,” Molano told reporters.
However, Colombia’s illegal armed groups have always included many children. Some were born to female guerrilla and paramilitary fighters. Others followed the footsteps of their warrior fathers, uncles or older siblings.
But the pace of forced recruitment of minors has jumped as seasoned fighters and drug gang leaders are gunned down. Rebel commanders have increasingly turned to teenagers and even pre-teens to fill out their ranks while the bandas criminales have found many advantages in deploying kids rather than adults.
They’ve also found a large pool of desperate children to target. Though national statistics show a decrease in Colombia’s poverty rate, many rural areas remain backwards and isolated, and beyond the control of the government security forces. Despite the tough conditions, the guerrilla groups and drug gangs sometimes provide rudderless youths a sense of power and — however skewed — direction.
Springer: Kids are often tricked into joining FARC
Even so, very few children these days sign up on their own free will.
In several southern departments, Springer said, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) now forces each family to provide the rebel organization with at least one son or daughter. The FARC’s minimum age used to be 14 or 15 but now Springer said those guidelines have gone out the window and that the average age of child recruits is 12.
In one of the most brazen recent cases, FARC rebels burst into a country school in southern Putumayo department in May and forcibly marched 13 students into the jungle. They were between the ages of 10 and 15.
“They tricked them by promising the students a better life and then took them away,” Colombian politician Gloria Inés Flórez said of the mass kidnapping.
In her report, Springer quoted one former child guerrilla, who went by the name of Juan, as saying he joined the FARC at the age of 10. “The guerrillas asked us which side we were on,” Juan said. “I didn’t want to join them but, come on, you can’t say ‘no’ to these people.”
UN urges Colombia to do more to fight child warrior phenomenon
Children like Juan provide illegal armed groups with several advantages. They are easily brainwashed and adapt quickly to the physical demands of fighting in the mountains and jungles. They are not paid salaries and have no way of protesting. They’re often the sons and daughters of impoverished migrant workers who may not be noticed when they go missing, Springer said.
Drug gangs, in turn, often rely on youngsters because — when caught — they go through the more lenient juvenile court system, meaning authorities face far more restrictions when it comes to questioning children. In addition, Springer said, it’s harder for those authorities to gain access and information from child gang members because government security forces are prohibited from using minors to infiltrate criminal organizations.
Springer’s investigation comes on the heels of a United Nations report released in May that urges the Colombian government to do more to separate children from the country’s illegal armed groups.
The UN report said the guerrillas usually recruit children in rural areas while the bandas criminales focus on urban areas. It said that children as young as 8 have been forced to join their ranks, and that several children in FARC uniforms were among those killed in recent military bombardments of rebel camps.
Children are ‘huge part’ of cocaine trafficking network
“The FARC is using minors to make and plant land mines, purchase medicine and carry out intelligence missions,” the UN report said. It added that sexual abuse is rampant and that girls — who make up 43 percent of child recruits — are often forced to have abortions after they become pregnant.
Springer suggested that Colombians may be overlooking the problem of child warriors, in part, because the rebels have been weakened by a military offensive while the bandas criminales are less powerful and violent than the Medellín and Cali cartels that dominated the illegal narcotics trade in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“There may be the impression that the war is over but I don’t believe that,” Springer said.
In fact, the country’s two main guerrilla organizations – FARC and the National Liberation Army, or ELN — are nowhere near defeated, and have stepped up their attacks over the past three years. Meanwhile, the bandas criminales continue to traffic huge shipments of cocaine. Children, Springer says, are “a huge part of this dynamic.”