Colombia’s main rebel group FARC has been accused of systematically recruiting minors in a study of 3000 demobilized child soldiers, reported newspaper El Espectador Monday.
The Unit for Justice and Peace, part of the Prosecutor General’s Office, released a 60-page report stating that of the 5075 child soldiers who demobilized from illegal organizations between 1992 and 2012, 59% belonged to the FARC.
Recruiting children under the age of 15 to “participate actively in hostile activities” is a war crime according to the International Criminal Court (ICC), while the United Nations sets 18 as the minimum recruitment age for participation in an armed conflict. The Prosecutor General’s study considers those younger than 18 as minors.
“Children can do useful jobs”
The report states that recruiting children had been FARC policy since the rebel group’s early days in the 1960’s.
In a memoir describing the early days of the FARC, Commander Jacobo Arenas – who was the FARC’s main political idealogue until his death in 1990 – wrote that “children from 10 years old can do useful jobs, like organizaing young revolutionaires. An educated kid in the school of the armed revolutionary struggle is almost always a good guerrilla.”
In the seventh conference of the FARC, held in May 1982, the different Fronts were told to recruit soldiers from the age of 15, after they had gone through a process of indoctrination. In a magnetic file labelled “Military Statutes”, it is recommended that soldiers be between 16 and 30.
The Prosecutor General’s study shows that there was a spike in the recruitment of children between 2002 and 2007. After losing many members in the wake of a military offensive against the FARC – the Ministry of Defense states that 7385 guerrillas were captured in 2003, compared to 2763 the year before – the rebel group went from recruiting 22 minors per year pre-2002 to recruiting 213 afterwards.
Most of the recruits came from Antioquia, to the north of Bogota, where the FARC’s Northeastern Bloc operates. Significant numbers of child recruits also came from the capital itself, the southern departments of Meta and Guaviare, and Cauca on the Pacific coast.
51% joined voluntarily
Of the 3000 former-FARC child soldiers looked at in the study, 1637 did not state when they were recruited, but there was detailed information concerning the other 1363 cases. Of them, 932 were boys, and just 51% joined voluntarily.
175 children joined for money and 133 because they were threatened. Other joined because of problems at home (94), because they were unemployed (86), out of a fixation with guns (35), or even just boredom and curiosity (21). Most of them had not passed 5th grade and 76 were illiterate.
The study says that of the 1363 demobilized children who gave detailed information about their involvement in the FARC, 489 were used as soldiers, 74 as explosives experts, 65 negotiated arms deals and 47 were involved in kidnappings.
26 of the children admitted to having killed someone.
In one FARC sub-group, the Eastern Bloc, 115 of the demobilized children were between 15 and 17 years of age, and 144 were between 11 and 14 years old. There were even cases of children younger than 10, one of whom said that he had been recruited at birth. The study claims that the longer someone stays in the FARC the less likely they are to demobilize, which is probably why there was only one case of a child who had spent more than 10 years with the rebel group and yet still decided to demobilize.
“When I was only 11 years old I was raped by FARC guerrillas”
Newspaper El Espectador described the individual stories of some of FARC’s child soldiers: Alexander became a guerrilla in the 10th Front after a “10-day training course” stretched into years and years; Diana, now 17, said that she was just 10 years old when the FARC arrived, and she followed them into the jungle to “live like the commanders.” When that life didn’t materialize she tried to escape. Her second attempt was punished with 300 trips to gather firewood, digging 15 holes for rubbish, rewriting 60 pages of FARC rules, and creating manholes for sharpshooters. She escaped on the third attempt.
Sara Morales, now in her early 20’s, told CNN in October 2012 that she was recruited by the FARC when a young girl: “When I was only 11 years old I was raped by FARC guerrillas and for 11 years I was abused and exploited by them.”
A 2012 report authored by the dean of the law school at Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano in Bogota, Natalie Springer, describes several harrowing cases, one of which involves a pregnant girl who was kicked in the stomach until she miscarried, because “no-one could be pregnant.”
Springer’s report claims that 42% of the girls she interviewed considered it an obligation to give sexual favors to their superiors.
The peace process
The FARC have been in talks with the Colombian government since November in an attempt to end Colombia’s 49-year armed conflict.
The ICC has expressed concerns over the possibility that guerrilla fighters guilty of war crimes may go unpunished in an eventual peace deal, something that the government has been loathe to deny outright.
The evidence showing that the FARC has systematically recruited child soldiers – defined by the ICC as a war crime – makes the situation even more complicated. If the government allows FARC guerillas accused of recruiting child soldiers to go punished as part of the “legal framework for peace” then they will effectively be spitting in the face of the ICC.
Last week Colombia’s Catholic Church joined several NGO’s in calling on the FARC to release more than 6000 child soldiers.
- Unos 3.000 niños reclutaron las Farc (El Espectador)
- Como Corderos entre Lobos (2012 Report on FARC child soldiers)
- Diario de la resistencia en Marquetalia, historia de los primeros días de combate y resistencia. (FARC-EP)
- FARC Profile (Insight Crime)
- Horrific use of child soldiers rising in Colombia, report finds (CNN)
- International Standards (Child Soldiders International)
- Justice Matters (ICC)