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How Colombia’s armed groups are exploiting COVID-19 to recruit children

‘The phenomenon is increasing, and unfortunately the pandemic has only made it worse.’

Weapons owned by Marxist National Liberation Army rebels
Weapons held by National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels lean against a wall in northwestern Colombia. Armed groups like the ELN are reportedly stepping up their recruitment of children. (Federico Rios/REUTERS)

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Almost as many children are estimated to have joined armed groups in Colombia in the first half of this year as in the whole of 2019, as the economic and social fallout of the coronavirus pandemic provides fertile ground for recruiters amid a resurgence of violence and conflict.

The trend is the latest example of the failings of Colombia’s peace process following a historic agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. An estimated 7,000 fighters laid down their arms as the country’s largest guerrilla group demobilised and hope grew that the Andean nation was finally set to turn the page after half a century of conflict.

That hope proved fleeting, however.

“Other criminal groups simply filled the FARC’s power vacuum,” explained Julia Castellanos, a researcher at COALICO, a coalition of seven NGOs working to monitor and prevent child recruitment.

Read more → Forced displacement and violence fester four years after Colombia peace deal

The number of minors recruited into armed groups did drop during the peace negotiations, but it quickly rose again as new and existing gangs fought for the FARC’s former territory and vied for its share of the lucrative cocaine trade.

In 2019, the UN denounced the trend as it reported 293 children had been forced to join armed groups in the previous year, 73 percent more than in 2017.

And now the pandemic ripping through Colombia appears to be accelerating the trend further. Up until June this year, 190 minors were recruited into armed groups, according to an estimate from COALICO, which recorded only 200 cases over the course of 2019.

The coronavirus effect

Colombia’s government acted swiftly to close all borders, non-essential businesses, public events, and schools on 15 March as it declared a national coronavirus emergency.

The measures succeeded in preventing a collapse of the hospitals, but not in containing the spread of the virus: Colombia has the sixth highest number of known cases of any country in the world – over 680,000 – and more than 22,000 Colombians have now died of COVID-19.

Six months on, lockdown measures are being eased, but they have already created a new set of problems: A decade of progress in fighting poverty is being reversed, while depression and suicides have spiked, and armed groups have tightened their grip over local populations.

Read more → Is a new Plan Colombia putting a fragile peace at risk?

Urban economies like Bogotá have seen the longest and strictest lockdowns, but rural areas like the lawless, coca-producing southwest of the country are bearing the brunt of the ensuing violence. 

More than 50 massacres have been recorded this year by the conflict monitoring group Indepaz. Many victims are young, including eight people aged between 17 and 26 killed at a barbeque in the town of Samaniego in the Nariño region on 15 August. 

Armed groups are also capitalising on the situation to recruit children, according to NGOs, teachers, and community leaders interviewed by The New Humanitarian.

Though difficult to track due to the crime’s invisible nature and under-reporting for fear of repercussions, all observers interviewed by TNH said they had noticed signs of a marked increase.

Some children are forced into armed gangs, but most are seduced by the prospect of regular food on the table or false promises like riches or women. The majority of recruits are boys used as coca-growers, informants, narco-traffickers, and sometimes assassins. Girls are recruited in lesser numbers, and are sometimes used as partners or forced into sexual slavery.

“The trend [already] was that the phenomenon is increasing, and unfortunately the pandemic has only made it worse,” Castellanos said.

Unemployment is around double what it was this time last year, and approximately half the country’s labour force work in informal economies with no safety net – often meaning they cannot eat if they do not work. 

“What makes a boy or girl accept the invitation of an armed group to join their ranks is a lack of life opportunities, and right now many families aren't eating,” Maria Paula Martinez, director of Save the Children Colombia, told TNH. “Many armed groups are targeting the poorest villages to offer kids work picking coca leaves or participating in other illicit activities.”

“The trend [already] was that the phenomenon is increasing, and unfortunately the pandemic has only made it worse.” 

Child welfare NGOs such as Save The Children are trying to combat the short-term pain of the economic shutdown with cash and food handouts, along with hygiene kits to the most vulnerable, but the population in need is vast.

Meanwhile, armed groups are using the public health emergency to exert more control over local populations.

“In these areas [controlled by armed groups], the people are scared,” Colombia’s inspector general, Carmen Maritza González, told local radio in June. “During the pandemic these groups have made a big effort to show their power, not only armed but economic, and they are concerning us in the way they are recruiting.”

There is particular concern for the regions of Norte de Santander and Catatumbo, key routes into Venezuela where armed drug trafficking groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) – founded as a Marxist guerrilla outfit in the 1960s – are reportedly hosting parties and using messaging apps like WhatsApp to entice children, González said. The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating 23 “large and serious” incidents involving armed groups that have affected children.

Social confinement and school closures

Even as the financial attraction of joining an armed group increases for young Colombians due to the lack of economic opportunity, the transformation of their social lives also makes them more vulnerable to the approaches of recruiters.

“The pandemic restricts many activities: studying, sports, family, and social recreation,” explained Nora Elena Taquinás, an Indigenous governor who has seen an increasing number of children disappear in her region of Tacueyó, Cauca, a hub for cocaine production. “These are causes which leave children very exposed.”

Most concerning is the closure of schools: the key line of defence against child recruitment.

For many rural children, schools are a shelter from domestic issues like familial violence or sexual abuse that can force them away from their families and into the arms of drug traffickers. Castellanos said some families ignore or “legitimise” the recruitment of their children out of financial desperation, but they are also not as skilled as teachers in spotting the telltale signs of grooming.

“Schools have become a refuge for boys and girls in Colombia, not only a refuge of learning but also of interaction with others and teachers who look after them,” she added.

Though Colombian schools have moved classes online, as few as 10 percent of children in rural areas have access to a computer. Foundations working with COALICO are trying to reach isolated children with radio programmes and educational sessions on their mobile phones, but their resources are stretched and their teams have limited access to the countryside owing to travel restrictions.

“The pandemic restricts many activities: studying, sports, family, and social recreation. These are causes which leave children very exposed.”

Colombia’s education ministry is proposing that schools re-open for the next academic year, but virtual classes would still remain a significant element and the future is uncertain as teachers’ unions and schools remain vehemently opposed to re-opening.

“That option does not exist for rural and isolated areas of Colombia,” said Martinez, Save the Children’s country director. “I worry that children and adolescents will remain vulnerable to being taken.”

Turning it around

Jeferson Diaz* began working as an informant for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) – a now-defunct but once-notorious far-right paramilitary group – at the age of 12. Three months later he was handling AK47 and M16 rifles in the jungle, training for guerrilla warfare.

Diaz believed he would be protecting people like his own family – the countryside’s poorest and most vulnerable – from the communist insurgencies terrorising and extorting them. But the brutal orders he received, and the dismembering and disappearances he witnessed, often contradicted the ideals he had been preached.

“Being a kid with a rifle in your hand, you think you are doing the right thing. Well, that is what they made us think when they recruited us,” he said in a phone interview with TNH. 

“I had to do many things I have never been proud of.”

From 1997 to 2003, Diaz was a child soldier patrolling an oil-producing region hotly contested by warring guerrillas and paramilitaries. He was troubled by the violence and eventually fled for the capital, Bogotá, at the age of 17 after being asked to kill a 14-year-old girl – an order he said was too morally reprehensible to carry out. He has never been home since, and missed his father’s and grandmother’s funeral last year for fear of violent retribution.

“I had to do many things I have never been proud of.”

As an adult, he is proud to work rehabilitating children who bear the same scars from what they have seen and done after being lured into Colombia’s conflict.

Another 8,798 children like Diaz have been recruited into armed groups in the past five decades, according to the government’s registry of victims.

Though that number keeps growing, he is hopeful that one day things will be different: Promises made by Colombia’s peace agreement will be delivered, and children will not have to consider war the only option to put food on the table, as he did.

“I hope that my daughters will one day live in a country at peace, with many opportunities for the children who suffer every day and who are tricked with false promises to recruit them,” he said.

* Name changed for security reasons.

The initial reporting for this article was conducted in Bogotá.

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