Colombia rebel group FARC on Sunday said it would release between 20 and 25 child soldiers under 15 ahead of a peace deal with the government. The defense minister had said earlier the FARC would release 170 children.
FARC negotiator Delix Antonio Muñoz, a.k.a. “Pastor Alape” told reporters in Havana, Cuba where talks are held that “we are considering there are between 20 and 25 [child soldiers], that is more or less the number of those in our camps.
According to Alape, the children who will be released were under 15 “on February 12 last year,” the day they banned child recruitment, meaning that some would be 16 or 17 by now.
Dealing with discrepancies
Because of the major discrepancy between the reported number of child soldiers in the FARC’s rank, Alape said his rebel group is internally revising the number of child soldiers.
According to the rebel leader, the FARC has already released “some six to eight” children who had been captured by the guerrillas, allegedly because the children were carrying out intelligence work for the military.
The FARC has promised to release its child soldiers for a year now, but didn’t receive the security protocols until Friday. Once these protocols are approved by the delegates, the children will be released in coordination with humanitarian organizations.
Raised eyebrows over low number
The FARC’s claim it has no more than 25 children in its ranks is likely to raise eyebrows as some already considered the Defense Ministry’s number low.
“I remember that during my kidnapping at least one third of people who guarded us were children,” said Sigifredo Lopez, a former FARC hostage and the current post-conflict adviser for the western Valle del Cauca province.
“This is a disgrace,” Lopez said, fearing that the FARC will release child soldiers away from the authorities, pushing many back in the same impoverished or violent conditions that made them join in the first place.
“The saddest thing is that the vast majority of these children weren’t recruited forcibly. The majority was handed over by their own parents to save them from starvation,” Lopez told RCN Radio a month ago.
The politician and hostage did not specify whether he was referring to minors under 18 or under 15.
Food for speculation
The FARC had announced it would end recruiting and wanted to release child soldiers in June last year already, but there has been ongoing speculation about the actual number of minors within the guerrillas’ ranks.
While the FARC earlier this year reportedly claimed to have less than 20 children in their ranks, Colombia’s Family Welfare institute said it was preparing to receive as many as 2,000.
Between 1999 and 2015, the government organization said it received on average more than 200 deserted minors from the FARC per year, leaving questions whether the guerrillas will surrender each child.
The Prosecutor General’s Office said a month ago it has criminal files on the recruitment of 12,000 child soldiers since 1975.
Paramilitary child soldiers
In the aftermath of the demobilization of the right-wing rebel group the AUC between 2003 and 2006, serious questions were raised about the accuracy of the figures relating to paramilitary child soldiers.
Verdad Abierta, a website dedicated to investigating Colombia’s armed conflict reported that “913 children were demobilized but it is believed that this represented just 10% of all children in paramilitary ranks.”
The discrepancies in the figures led to the establishment of a program called “Finding Nemo” by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to find the missing demobilized children.
The government has yet to respond to the FARC’s claimed number of child soldiers currently within their ranks.