Despite dialogues, recruitment of child soldiers continues in Colombia
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Despite dialogues, recruitment of child soldiers continues in Colombia

The recent capture of a Colombian guerrilla fighter responsible for recruiting minors into the rank and file of the group suggests that, despite apparently progress in the peace dialogues between members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government’s negotiating team, the FARC has continued its longstanding practice of recruiting children to fight for its forces.

Miguel Angel Villamizar Contreras, 28, who goes by the alias of “Reyes,” was an active member of the 24th Front of the FARC guerrilla group for 17 years, and is allegedly responsible for 80 percent of all recruitment of minors in the provinces of Santander, Antioquia and Bolívar.

He was captured on September 11 in the town of Yondo, near the industrial city of Barrancabermeja and about 260 miles north of the capital of Bogotá.

“This capture not only has far-reaching effects on the FARC’s 24th Front and the Magdalena Medio division, but also for children, because this man had become the most prolific recruiter of minors in the region, tricking parents and children into joining up and training them with weapons so they could become FARC rebels,”said Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón in a press conference. “This capture is important and his actions cannot be justified,”

Children have historically played a role in the long-running Colombian conflict. A study conducted by the Colombian Attorney General’s Office found that, from 1992 to 2012, the FARC had a policy of actively recruiting minors. During this period, records show that an estimated 3,000 minors were either freed from the guerrilla group by state forces or escaped.

Girls made up 31 percent of these children who left the guerrillas.

“Over a period of three months, the victims were subjected to harsh physical training and courses about how to use weaponry,” said Pinzón. “These trainings were conducted by alias ‘Reyes,’ proved by various videos which were captured in a military assault in March on a FARC base.”

Contreras would reportedly target poor families, convincing parents to allow him to take their children away for training in exchange for the promise of substantial financial benefits.

Child recruitment a key negotiation point

The issue of recruitment of minors has been one of the major obstacles during the continuing dialogues in Havana between the FARC and the government’s negotiating team. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has also been particularly insistent that this practice be stopped.

“Over 40,000 Colombian children are currently at risk of being recruited,” said Paula Delgado-Kling, who writes about humanitarian issues and the conflict in Colombia. “Sixty-five percent of all recruitment happens between the ages of 6 and 14. This is younger than before. Do you remember what you were doing when you were 6 years old?”

Delgado-Kling is in the process of writing “Stolen Lives,” which follows the lives of two former FARC child soldiers.

While members of the FARC secretariat involved in the dialogues have not commented on Reyes’ capture, the report released by the Attorney General’s Office shows that the FARC is responsible for recruiting the most children in Colombia, far ahead of the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerilla group and the newly emerged armed groups (officially called BACRIM — short for “bandas criminales”) which formed after of the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries in 2006.

“Child experts in Colombia will tell you that combatants in the ELN, the FARC and the paramilitary groups are children,” she said. “Minors comprise about 42 percent of the FARC, 44 percent of the ELN, 40 percent of the paramilitary and more than 50 percent of the BACRIM.”

According to reports in the Colombian press, children are often recruited by guerrilla groups to become pisa suaves — called this for their ability to sneak silently into camps and set bombs and other types of booby traps. These children are typically anywhere between 8 and 16 years old and are trained in explosives and to move in total silence.

“Such were our abilities that we were able to hide beneath the bunks of the AUC guards. They did not know we were there, they even urinated on us without realizing it as we were so close,” said ‘Liliana,’ a demobilized guerrilla, in an interview with the El Espectador newspaper. ‘Liliana’ (an alias used to protect her identity) joined the FARC ranks as a pisa suave when she was 11 years old.

FARC leaders have insisted that only teenagers over the age of 15 are allowed to officially join their ranks, stating that younger children with the guerrillas are usually orphans, but this appears to contradict some of their own statements and even documents published on their website in English.

“I found the guerrilla and asked them if I could join them, but they said I couldn’t, that I had to grow up first, that I was only a child. That forced me to make another decision, to slip away from my home. I left because I could not stand it anymore. My mom took me back, but I left again. I was twelve and I started living together with a 28-year-old man. But I didn’t last with him, he left me after three months. Some days later, I finally joined the guerrilla. My dream was to find my sister, and an uncle who had joined the guerrilla, too.” — Lizeth, in a document on the FARC’s website.

Child recruitment was historically confined mostly to rural areas, but has recently expanded to target children in urban areas as well, raising troubling questions about the impact on Colombian society if an agreement is signed and these former child fighters begin to try to reintegrate back into society.