Criminal groups have lowered their minimum age requirement and are forcibly recruiting “younger and younger” children into their ranks, according to an expert on the issue.
The incidence of child soldiers among the guerrilla and paramilitary ranks is well documented. Less well known, however, is the problem of minors in the ranks of neo-paramilitary groups, drug cartels and street gangs.
For at-risk children, who likely have few opportunities for social or economic advancement and frequently live in unsafe or abusive homes, the offer of income and social status associated with gang membership can be irresistible. That’s a major difference between the FARC, for instance, and organized crime: in a gang, the children will be paid.
Dr. Natalia Stringer, a columnist for El Tiempo who has devoted many years to studying the forced recruitment phenomenon, met with leaders of criminal organizations on a recent trip to the city of Medellin. The gang leaders “claimed to improve the lives of the children by offering them protection,” Stringer told Colombia Reports, a claim that she wholeheartedly refutes.
Youths under the age of 14 are not only legally exempt from prison, but also incapable of testifying against their superiors. This legal situation makes them useless to prosecutors and highly attractive to gangs. The enactment of the Criminal Responsibility System for Adolescents in 2006 changed the minimum age of imprisonment from 12 to 14, and reduced the severity of punishment for all offenders under the age of 18.
As the risks associated with crime are reduced, youths under 14 have increased their criminal activity. Simultaneously there is less incentive on the part of the police to take action.
The Inter-departmental Commission for the Prevention of Recruitment and Utilization of Boys, Girls, Adolescents and Youths by Organized Groups at the Margin of the Law is funded in part by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The task force identifies three pre-existing problems that make child recruitment more possible:
- The presence of gangs in spaces which are supposed to be safe for children, i.e. homes, schools, and parks.
- The various forms of violence and exploitation inflicted upon children in their family and community environments, which are sometimes culturally accepted, including harassment, abuse, and sexual slavery.
- The failure of authorities and institutions to guarantee and protect the rights of children – the existence of which many families and communities do not recognize or understand.
An accurate estimate of the number of children in gangs remains elusive to authorities. Suffice it to say that the problem, according to the government task force, is grave.
Child recruitment is a longstanding tradition among Colombian armed groups. The country’s largest rebel group, FARC, is notorious for the shocking ages of some of their recruits. After the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) demobilized from 2003-2006, many neo-paramilitary groups focused on drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining emerged. Made up of essentially the same people, these new groups continued the practice of child recruitment, according to a 2010 annual report from the UN.
The Humanitarian Diplomatic Mission, a Medellin-based NGO, released a report in 2010 which claimed that Colombia has the fourth-highest number of child soldiers in the world, behind Burma, Sudan, and Congo.
“In the last two years, the conflict in Colombia has changed, and there are now children in the intermediate structures of these armed groups doing intelligence work and drug trafficking,” the report stated.
- Interview with Dr. Natalia Stringer
- Prevenir el reclutamiento y la utilización es asunto de todos (OIM)
- Conpes 3673 (Vice President’s Office)