Monday, July 4

The endless battle of child soldiers in Colombia


At the age of 15, Yeimy Sofía Vargas is already part of the registry of children and adolescents who are victims of the Colombian armed conflict. The minor died in March after an Air Force bombardment of a camp of former FARC dissidents in Guaviare, an area with an insurgent tradition in the south of the country.

After the events, the Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, wanted to project an image of self-sufficiency and security. In addition, he held the guerrilla dissidents responsible, who, in his opinion, turned minors into “war machines.” Analysts of the armed conflict such as Andrés Aponte point out that the conservative government of Iván Duque sought with those statements to evade its constitutional obligation to protect one of the most vulnerable populations from the conflict, and incidentally, burden them with the weight of a “great stigmatization” .

The news also revived the devastating memory of the eight minors who died in 2019, after another discharge of aerial lead on the same guerrilla faction. The fact tried to be hidden by the Defense portfolio and cost the then Minister Guillermo Botero his job.

One of the populations hardest hit by violence in Colombia

The illicit recruitment of persons under 18 years of age in the Colombian war it is an old reality. Despite the opacity of the figures, we know that 6,976 children and adolescents have been welcomed between 1999 and 2021 by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF), a state entity that cares for young people who disengage, or are rescued, of any illegal armed group.

For its part, the Victims Unit of the conflict has registered since 1985 some 16,045 homicides of people between 12 and 17 years of age. And other figures indicate that, of the total of more than nine million victims of the conflict registered in the same entity, just over one million are adolescents.

Political scientist Carlos Otálora is emphatic in pointing out that if violence in Colombia “were given an age, childhood and adolescence would undoubtedly be one of the worst hit populations.”

He also regrets that the local media have limited themselves to replicating the most striking facet of a deep and complex problem. Andrés Aponte adds, in the same sense, that the news language has distorted reality: “The press in Colombia repeats as a catchphrase that it is about ‘forced recruitment’ of minors. A detailed study shows that this is imprecise and that in our country the bulk of the cases of incorporation into illegal groups is voluntary ”.

In the same way, he adds that the correct treatment would be that of “illegal recruitment”. And he ends by assuring that, there, “they prefer moralistic condemnations and erroneous ideas are formed. In the case of Colombia, the same is not the case in Nigeria, where Boko Haram kidnaps children and violently cuts off their ability to choose.”

Crossroad

At the age of 13, Pedro Pablo Ibatá was already a boy with political notions and stories of war in his head. At that age, he made the decision to join the Marxist FARC guerrilla and follow in the footsteps of his father, who was part of the first insurgent gangs in the early 1960s. From the rural universe he left behind, he only longed for his family , since most of the boys in the area also bet, at one point or another, on the armed struggle.

In Vistahermosa, the town in the center of the country where Ibatá was raised, at the end of the 1980s there were few people we knew. Many ended up in the antagonistic troops of the paramilitary extreme right, which, at that time, was working hard to eliminate from the map the members of the Patriotic Union, a legal political formation with guerrilla roots.

Ibatá received the name of Guillermo as a war alias and spent almost 30 years in hiding, where he became one of the greatest experts in explosives with various crimes in the capital. Today, after the 2016 peace accords in Havana with the Government, he is one of the 19,000 demobilized from the former FARC. He says that at 47 he is already a grandfather and has gray hair. Going from being a cautious man, he shows enthusiasm when he talks about his new mission at the head of one of the units of the program of reintegration into civilian life for young combatants.

The disappeared Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were, historically, the largest recruiters of young people, with 56%, according to the figures of minors taken in by the ICBF, most of them were between 14 and 17 years old. The FARC is followed by the still active National Liberation Army, with 19% of all minors recruited, and the demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, with 15%.

Almost all sources agree that, although it is undeniable that there has been forced recruitment, it is a residual phenomenon throughout half a century of internal conflict. There is documentation, for example, that shows that in the 1990s the FARC used a quota system. In certain regions, one minor for each family was taken to the jungle, under extortion. In 2012 the scandal of some squads was discovered, baptized the “soft foot”, of children specialized in special operations who came to cut the throats of members of the public force.

But the political scientist and former ELN guerrilla, Álvaro Villarraga, clarifies that in the classic scheme of peasant guerrillas, a system of political conviction and hereditary factors prevailed. The military intelligence documents classified the militia clans that passed through the structures through generations as “farianas” or “elenas” families.

The case of the paramilitaries is different. His model consisted of attracting more advanced young criminals, often ex-guerrillas or ex-military, who were offered a salary or the promise of all kinds of goods. Unlike the guerrillas, their training centers were located on the poorer outskirts of middle cities, and not in the countryside.

Andrés Aponte, from the Ideas for Peace Foundation, refers to a “mercenarization” of the war. “From the 80s on, a different window of social advancement opens up for humble young people. In the guerrillas there was no payment, but in the case of the paramilitaries there was, and the remuneration depended on the skill of each warrior. ”, Says the researcher.

Broken generations

At age 14, José Sánchez joined the FARC guerrilla to avoid jail. Her stepfather had raped one of her sisters and as revenge decided “to shoot her so she would learn to respect.” That is why he fled. There he received the alias “El tuerto”. He does not deny his past, but confesses that, in the more than three decades in the mountains, the only thing with which he never agreed with his organization was his religious faith. “Marxist-Leninist guidelines impose atheism. With that I never could. I always believed in the existence of God and before each mission he would bless me without fail ”, he assured.

Sánchez had in his hands the mission of recruiting new members for “the cause.” He assures without hesitation that he never lied or forced anyone to follow him. Today, demobilized and 57 years old, he works as a driver of heavy machinery and does not deny his past.

“There was nothing else”

Camila, on the other hand, is reluctant to talk about her life in the guerrillas. Besides having lost a leg when stepping on an antipersonnel mine, he has had health problems and his only concern in life is to look after the future of his six-year-old son.

He also joined the FARC when he was 14 years old because in his municipality “there was nothing else.” No school, no army, no nothing. There she learned to read, served as a nurse and dentist. His voice is dry and hard. His life has not been very different. After asking again and again what the purpose of the interview is, he asks for only one condition: that his name is not mentioned. You don’t want your child to read about a past that they want to bury in the future.

The motivations for choosing the gun path have changed very little in the last half century. The violence has subsided, but has by no means disappeared. In fact, the closure of schools due to the health crisis has spurred new cases of recruitment documented by Organizations such as the Coalition against the involvement of children and young people in the Colombian armed conflict (Coalico).

The bond between children and teachers has been disrupted. And the retreat due to confinement has further deepened the institutional vacuum.

In recent times, new illegal groups, as well as smaller gangs supported by the perennial and lucrative drug trafficking, have added digital tools to hook boys in urban suburbs (in rural areas, internet coverage does not exceed an average of 9.6 %). They are much less ideological boys, more interested in subsisting. Often times, vulnerable Venezuelan migrants.

José sums it up clearly: “For a long time the State has made it very easy for the armed groups.” It is enough to review the statements of the ex-combatants to verify that there are patterns that are repeated: precariousness, state absence, revenge or violence. But also small doses of hope that in the not too distant future the next generations will not have to grow up under the whistle of bullets.





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