With more than a half-century of on-going war against powerful guerilla forces and drug cartels, the Colombian government has begun a more aggressive approach in cracking down on rebel activities – including child participants.
In 2006, with violence raging unabated, and an increasing number of children involved in rebel activity, the Colombian government issued Law 1098. Under this decree, children could face up to eight years in prison should they be found of any crimes committed during the time they were part of a guerrilla force, regardless of the methods used to recruit them.
“Congress decided that it was a great idea to punish the children for the crimes committed during their time as soldiers,” said Marcela Forero, communications officer for Save the Children in Bogotá.
Young fighters have long been choice targets for recruitment by the country’s two largest rebel forces – the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).
Human Rights Watch estimates there to be 11,000 to 14,000 child soldiers in Colombian guerrilla groups. FARC-EP and ELN have succeeded in recruiting children from mostly indigenous regions, according to reports by watchlist.org. The most common method of recruitment is by seizing schools and rounding up the students for conscription, a juvenile levée en masse. Still, many children are confused by rebel propaganda and the conflicted images that these terrorist groups portray.
“There’s sort of a halo in the idea of becoming a member of a guerilla [organization],” said Patricia Erb, CEO of Save the Children–Canada, which leads a team in Latin America to prevent children from falling into a life full of violence. “A lot of these kids say ‘I want to be a member of this guerrilla [organization] or that guerrilla,’ because they think it’s the right thing. It’s a difficult situation.”
In Colombia, Save the Children is working with schools and families to prevent recruitments, while educating everyone in different ways to keep families together. “We’re working to avoid the use of violence and create a more peaceful environment,” Erb told MediaGlobal. Their programs promote the use of music, art, and other creative outlets as part of a curriculum that keeps children interested in learning and not violence.
Despite the efforts and success Save the Children has had in Colombia, the FARC-EP and ELN continue to step up their efforts. With an average of 28 children abducted a month, their recruiting tactics have become increasingly aggressive. In 2008, the FARC-EP shot and killed one of two brothers after dousing him with gasoline; the surviving boy was forcibly recruited. The boys were 13 and 15 years old.
Examples of escalating violence and recruitment are evident in largely indigenous regions like Chocó, Putumayo, Cauca, and Nariño. In the Pacific coastal town of El Charco, where the FARC-EP paid a child soldier 1,000 pesos to carry a bomb into a rural police station and set it off, killing three officers – that’s about 50 cents to serve as a suicide bomber.
According to government officials, the new law is a progressive way to prevent a more volatile situation, in a country where violence has increased significantly in the last decade, for many civilians, it’s quite the opposite. “Behind all the violent acts these children commit there is an adult; that adult should be the one who should be punished,” Forero insisted.