The recruitment of minors declined following the execution of the peace accords between the Colombian government the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish). The 2018 report of the Colombian National Center for Historical Memory, “A War with No Age,” identified the areas with the greatest number of recruitment of minors. According to the document, “The recruitment went from being a primarily rural phenomenon to one that included the country’s major cities, such as Medellín, Montería, Bogotá, Villavicencio, and Barrancabermeja.”
General Ricardo Gómez Nieto, commander of the Colombian Army, will never forget the image of the young girl, barely 14 years old, whom he rescued from the ranks of the guerrillas one morning during a 1999 operation he led in Urabá. “The guerrillas had taken her four years earlier, when she was barely 10. She was terrified,” he told Diálogo. “It’s an issue we pay great attention to and monitor closely.”
Rescuing and reestablishing rights
Law 742, passed in 2002, prohibits the recruitment of children under 15 years old into armed forces or their participation in hostilities in Colombia. The practice is classified as a war crime. Nonetheless, as of 2015, there were 16,879 cases of recruitment and use of children and adolescents in armed conflict.
According to data from the Center for Historical Memory on armed groups’ recruitment of minors, FARC accounts for 54 percent of the total, paramilitary groups for 26 percent, and the National Liberation Army (ELN, in Spanish) for 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent may be related to drug trafficking groups, although hard numbers are not available, the report indicates.
“The Army is under permanent orders to rescue our minors from the hands of organized armed groups. Since 2010, 3,169 minors, consisting of 2,618 boys and 551 girls between the ages of 10 and 17, have been rescued,” Gen. Gómez said. “The number has great significance for the Army, which provides special care to the minors and even places them in a government assistance program to return them to their families, if they have one, and to society.”
When a minor is rescued, the service members follow the protocol to turn them over to the Ministry of Defense’s Humanitarian Assistance Group for Demobilized Persons. The child is registered, then moved to the Colombian Family Wellness Institute, which is in charge of reestablishing the minors’ rights, in coordination with the Colombian Reintegration Agency.
Minors are rescued under a variety of conditions. Some are rescued from combat situations, in which case, troops are to protect the minors. Children captured in battle are treated as rescues, not captures. The rights of minors are respected, even when armed. In some cases, children escape from guerrillas and demobilize by turning themselves over to the armed forces. At times, service members find minors within gangs during raids for the arrest of gang leaders.
In 2000, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflicts. “Among the fundamental rights of the child unlawfully recruited by armed groups are the rights to proper treatment, family, health, and education. As a result, the recruitment of minors is classified as a war crime pursuant to International Criminal Court Law,” the UN states on its website.
“Despite the legal implications, [the recruitment of minors] is a [common] practice among illegal groups, which use it not only to enlist children, but also to subjugate families,” Gen. Gómez told Diálogo. “ELN hasn’t stopped recruiting minors. They even bring children from the Venezuelan border, but they are returned to Venezuela after we rescue them. We also find children in drug trafficking groups such as Los Pelusos, the Gulf Clan, and Los Puntilleros, where they are used as messengers and lookouts.”
The Colombian public force develops preventive strategies in conjunction with the National Police, since the law prohibits the Army, as a military force, from entering schools. Instead, service members perform Military Information Support Operations, such as distributing material advising families to maintain strong ties and protect their children.
The issue of recruitment of minors is a priority on the Colombian agenda. The Presidential Office for Human Rights seeks to strengthen the protection of children’s environments, so that people do not view a life of violence as an option.
“Rescued minors suffer tremendous physical and emotional trauma. They were taught violence; they had to see and participate in awful events. They arrive in a bad state and great efforts are made for their recovery. Some of them have literally been knocked down and abused or, particularly in the case of girls, raped and battered, these are lifelong traumas,” Gen. Gómez said. “It’s a crime against humanity. Terrorists face charges for which they will never be freed or pardoned.”