As in the darkest days of Colombia's civil conflict, armed groups across the country continue to enlist and exploit teenagers. In this, the first of a three-part investigation by InSight Crime about the recruitment of minors in Colombia by criminal groups and insurgents, we explore where and how this happens.
The series involved dozens of interviews with former child soldiers, community leaders, activists and local government officials. Some names have been changed in order to protect identities.
Santiago sat on a swing in a Bogotá park.
“I killed for the first time when I was 14,” he said without making eye contact.
He sat still as he spoke, except for his feet scuffing the dirt.
Santiago was once recruited by Los Caparrapos, a criminal group in Bajo Cauca, a region encompassing half a dozen municipalities in the northern state of Antioquia. He later became a hitman for the group
“I wish I hadn’t murdered people. It’s something I live with every day,” he said.
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Santiago, who was 16 when he spoke to InSight Crime, belongs to a new generation of teenage soldiers, which authorities hoped would never reappear following the demobilization of the country’s largest guerrilla faction in 2016.
But just as in the darkest days of the country’s civil conflict, armed groups across the country, including remnants of the guerrillas, continue to enlist and exploit teenage boys and girls. In early March, the Colombian military bombed a camp led by ex-rebels. Among the dead were at least two minors.
The Colombian government responded to criticism after the bombing, saying it “followed protocol,” and the minister of defense called the child recruits “machines of war.”
Santiago, who spoke to InSight Crime from a Bogotá school for former child soldiers months prior to the Colombian military bombardment, said he was enchanted by the weapons but also with belonging to something.
“Carrying a gun made me feel powerful. It gave me a purpose,” explained Santiago. “My teachers always made me feel worthless. The gang made me feel better.”
The number of youngsters being recruited by armed groups in Colombia has been rising steadily since the 2016 peace accords. The country’s Human Rights Ombudsman issued 165 alerts between 2017 and 2020, highlighting situations in which children and teenagers have been enticed or forced to take up arms. These government officials say the numbers of minors currently involved with armed groups stands at the highest level since before the country’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), which culminated in a 2016 accord.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) see similar trends. COALICO (Coalición contra la vinculación de niñas, niños y jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia), a coalition of seven NGOs working to monitor and prevent child recruitment, told InSight Crime that around 220 minors were recruited last year, compared to 200 in 2019 and 270 in 2018.
“The numbers are generally steady,” Julia Castellanos, a researcher at COALICO, told InSight Crime.
Still, many cases of child recruitment often go unreported, she added.
Bajo Cauca and Vaupés - Recruitment Hotspots
The field research showed that the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca and the Amazon state of Vaupés.
The reasons are similar: They need bodies. In Bajo Cauca, the place where Santiago was recruited, a turf war over coca production and illegal gold mining between the Caparrapos and their former criminal masters, the Urabeños, has left hundreds dead since it erupted in 2017. In Vaupés, which lies along the southeastern corner bordering Brazil, former FARC soldiers have been recruiting as they expand their territorial control.
In November last year, 18 teenagers were taken from the remote community of Carurú in the west of Vaupés. Dissident factions of the FARC arrived in the town, warning parents they had to give up their eldest child. Both families and local authorities were unable to fight back.
But not all minors in this situation have been forcibly recruited. This investigation, which included fieldwork in eight departments, identified a wide range of social, emotional, environmental and criminal factors that can lead a young person to join an armed group.
The children and teenagers recruited are usually from poor, crime-plagued neighborhoods. Often just the offer of a regular hot meal can be enough to entice them to join, and a salary will convince them to stay. In Bajo Cauca, for example, paramilitary groups are offering children a salary of two million pesos to join their criminal cause.
“I joined because I wanted to support my family,” says Santiago, who then looked up for the first time during the conversation. “At least that’s what you think at first. But life suddenly becomes harder. You realize you’re trapped.”
Pawns of Organized Crime
The 2016 demobilization of the FARC left a vacuum in Colombia’s underworld, stoking a growth of criminal factions and re-opening old wounds.
Mostly rural communities across Colombia are at risk from a rapidly evolving checkerboard of armed groups who are fighting for control of drug trafficking and contraband at the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean borders, settling old scores in former FARC areas and fighting off armed government campaigns.
This fragmentation has created disparate and localized armed confrontations, leaving young people as easy targets for groups seeking to replenish their ranks.
Bajo Cauca has suffered from an especially violent battle among the Caparrapos, Los Urabeños, a number of FARC dissident groups, and the country’s last remaining insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
“It’s a war. The bigger the group, the better the chances of winning. That’s what they used to tell us. That’s why they pick on kids,” said Santiago.
On the other side of the country, groups that once belonged to the FARC are now in fierce competition and have made frequent use of child soldiers. In Colombia's southern department of Caquetá, two former FARC fronts are fighting each other over the production and trafficking of cocaine.
Photos passed to InSight Crime allegedly show the bodies of three teenage members of these groups killed in combat between these two factions in 2019. Another eight children and teenagers recruited by the former FARC were killed in Caquetá during an air raid by the Colombian air force in August of the same year.
“Children are useful in every stage of the cocaine process,” a former drug trafficker told InSight Crime. “They pick the leaves, process the paste and can move the stuff easily around the country. They can also be armed to take on rivals. They are the pawns of the drug trade.”
Alcohol and Abduction in Vaupés
In Vaupés, children and teenagers have been targeted as former FARC fronts carve out new drug trafficking routes toward Brazil.
This remote region is made up of vast waterways that serve as trafficking arteries for groups seeking to ship cocaine and marijuana to Brazil. Local officials interviewed by InSight Crime spoke about a new criminal partnership in the area between what was the First Front of the FARC and the Familia do Norte, a Brazilian prison gang, which has increased the amount of drugs and contraband going through Vaupés.
“They need guides, people who know the landscape. That's why they target Indigenous children,” said Alfredo, a local resident of Wacurabá, an Indigenous community in Vaupés. He did not want to give his surname for fear of reprisals.
Alfredo traveled for six days from Wacurabá to the departmental capital of Mitú to report the recruitment of his 17-year-old brother, Ángel, who he says went with FARC dissidents in January 2019. It took Alfredo a year to save up enough money for the trip. With no highways, journeys in Vaupés are done either by boat or with expensive charter flights.
“They had a party in the village. They got everyone drunk and wowed the teenagers with stories of war and weapons. Before anyone realized what was happening, the dissidents had convinced Ángel to join them, and they got up and left,” said Alfredo.
Two days later, the guerrillas brought Ángel back to the village to collect his belongings. Now sober, he had changed his mind. But it did not matter.
“He was crying. He didn’t want to go anymore. But the armed men with him said he’d made a commitment and that they’d kill him if he refused to go back with them,” explained Alfredo.
Powerless to fight back, Ángel’s family could only watch as he was dragged off into the distance.
A Recruiting System
The recruiters that took Ángel seemed to have a system. A number of residents in Vaupés, interviewed by InSight Crime, said a young man in his twenties was in charge of recruiting children and teenagers. He traveled with a group, all of whom dressed in civilian clothing.
They set up camp in these rainforest communities along the main trafficking routes to Brazil, organizing parties and selecting their targets, the residents said. Like in the case of Ángel, the minors are plied with liquor before being taken into the jungle.
Still, places like Vaupés are not a government priority. Indeed, cases of child recruitment often occur in isolated locations, and family members struggle to make the long journey to file reports.
Even when they do make the trip, deep-seated distrust of authorities may deter them. Despite Alfredo’s long and arduous journey, skepticism got the better of him.
“They won’t do anything anyway so it’s not worth it. I see it in their faces. I’ll probably never see my brother again. I just have to accept that, no matter how painful it is," he told InSight Crime.
In the end, Alfredo decided not to tell authorities anything about his brother’s forced recruitment.
*Mathew Charles is a freelance journalist and investigator with the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá.
Top Image: Former child soldiers at their school in Bogotá (Photo by Mathew Charles)
**An earlier version of this story, based on news reports, said ten minors had been killed in the bombardment. The real number was two killed.