Colombia’s illegal armed groups have integrated more than 18,000 minors in their ranks, says a report.
According to an investigation by journalist Natalia Springer, the number of minors enrolled in leftist rebel groups, right-wing neo-paramilitary groups and urban gangs is much higher than the government has admitted so far.
Because of this, the government should revise its statistics on child recruitment, Springer told Colombia Reports.
According to the journalist’s investigation, the majority of the members of illegal armed groups enter the organizations when they are still under 18 years of age.
In the now-demobilized paramilitary organization AUC some 40% were minors. These days, some 50% of the armed members of the paramilitary succession groups, known by the government-imposed designation “Bacrim,” are children.
According to Springer, child recruitment has “multiplied by 17 over the past four years,” particularly in the big cities.
The journalist did not believe minors entered the armed groups voluntarily, while stating many were not actually forcibly recruited.
“No child has entered the conflict voluntarily, the children are not going to war … because they like firearms or because they like the uniforms, or because they have a violent nature or because they are interested in the ideology of these groups. They join because we have an armed conflict in every single way, which is affecting their regions, which affects their homes and which restricts all of their rights. For many [joining an armed group] is a survival strategy,” Springer said.
According to the journalist, the majority of these children join illegal armed groups or urban gangs because of a lack of opportunies, which makes joining violent groups more attractive.
“We have to isolate a few very concrete variables; children leaving school, illiteracy, [parents] leaving their children, teen pregnancies, hunger and the degree of malnutrition and the degree of inequity in the municipalities where these children are left behind, these are the conditions of vulnerability,” Springer said, adding that the risk of child recruitment is higher in areas where illegal activities are more common.
“The conditions of risk allude to the presence of illegal crops […] the presence of one or more armed groups, the presence of illegal mining, illegal logging and natural disasters.”
The director of the state-run Institute of Family Wellbeing (ICBF), Diego Molano, said he “valued enormously the effort [Springer] had made,” while at the same time distancing himself from the conclusions. While having received financial support of the ICBF, Molano said the report was an “independent study” and he disagreed with its conclusions.
“We have doubts about the total of 18,000 children suggested by Springer. For that reason we will contrast it with other sources, maybe we will find a different conclusion,” said Molano, while stressing it was “very complicated” to produce exact statistics due to the clandestine nature of the illegal armed groups.
Springer rejected the ICBF director’s criticism, saying “we have denied what is going on for a long time. The moment to accept reality and make an honest diagnosis has arrived.”
Springer said the government had to be more honest about statistics. “I believe they are constantly giving us numbers that turn out to be false or that is not making sense,” said the journalist.
Additionally, both the government and society must “stop denying the armed conflict, that there is an extensive social and economic vulnerability which keeps affecting large parts of the population and that this is the root of these problems […] but there are other risks that are equally grave like child prostitution and abuse of people,” according to Springer.
Lastly, Springer called on the Colombian government to “implement honest policies allowing the reduction of vulnerability and risk among the population.”