Colombia remains a hotspot for forced recruitment of minors. In this, the last of a three-part investigation by InSight Crime, we look at how school teachers are trying -- unsuccessfully -- to thwart this recruitment.
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.
Nancy Arboleda has a distinct air of authority. It probably comes from the two decades of experience as a teacher in a school in Tumaco, a small city in the corner of southwestern Colombia.
“We’ve lost 21 students here since 2012,” she said, counting them on her fingers, as she spoke to InSight Crime from her school.
It has had a huge impact. Local education authorities say the number of students at Arboleda’s Iberia school has fallen in the past five years from about 3,600 to just over 3,000.
“If they haven’t been killed, they’ve been recruited,” Arboleda said. “Parents have also stopped enrolling their children at school because it’s just so dangerous.”
In 2016, the government and the country’s largest guerrilla group -- Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) signed a peace accord. But in regions like this, it is difficult to tell, as violence remains an everyday reality for tens of thousands of people.
Authorities in Tumaco, for instance, say a former FARC front has been recruiting heavily from marginalized communities in the region. Their targets are not just children. Arboleda says eight teachers have fled due to death threats.
“They don’t just come for the children,” Arboleda said. “They also come for us.”
A Deliberate Strategy
The recruitment of children and teenagers by armed groups in Colombia is not erratic and opportunistic. It is calculated and the result of a definite policy aimed at growth and expansion.
In Colombia’s eastern plains, students and teachers reported one recruitment strategy being used by FARC dissidents is to entice recruits with offers of companionship. One 15-year-old named Marly said she met a 17-year-old boy who persistently courted her.
“He was new to school and had arrived to finish his studies in the ninth grade. We started getting to know each other more. We talked a lot and we started dating. I really liked him,” she said.
Marly says the pair were inseparable. But six months later, she realized the boy had an ulterior motive.
“We were alone, he grabbed me and told me I had to go with him. He said if I didn't go with him to the guerrillas, they'd kill him,” she told InSight Crime.
She is now living in Bogotá after a miraculous escape.
“I was very lucky because my brother saw us fight in the street, and he came to help me. Otherwise, I don't even know if I'd be alive to tell this story,” she explained, rocking back and forth as she spoke.
Teachers in the department of Meta, were too scared to go on the record because they fear reprisals by the former FARC, but they told InSight Crime that it is common for the dissidents to force older boys and girls to seduce their younger peers.
And Corporación Vínculos, a non-governmental organization that works with former child soldiers in Meta, said that older teenagers receive payments for each new recruit they can abduct or successfully convince to join the armed structure. If they fail, they face death threats. Teachers say they are powerless to do anything about it.
More than 700 educators received death threats in Colombia in 2018, and ten were murdered, according to the country’s main teaching union. In many cases, the union said they were trying to protect their students.
One principal from the southern Amazon department of Vaupés, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime she became a direct target of a FARC dissident group in 2017 when she tried to protect the students.
“The guerrillas would regularly steal our fuel, our internet and even our food. But when they started to come for the children, I couldn’t allow it, so I closed the school and got the children taken home,” she said.
The principal alerted the local authorities. But the FARC dissidents labelled the principal as an informant and gave her 24 hours to leave town or be killed.
“It was terrifying. We’re just trying to protect children and offer them an education. But I suppose they don’t care about that. They just want to replenish their ranks,” she said.
A Kidnapping and An Escape
To beef up their ranks, armed groups use kids like Luisa. She was 14 when we met. Two years prior, she and her 16-year-old sister were bathing in the river next to their school in Villa Gladys in Vaupés when they were kidnapped by the former guerrillas.
“It all happened so fast. Later that day, we were in camouflage and carrying a gun,” she explained, with a nervous laugh that did little to hide the anguish on her face.
Luisa and her sister spent a month in the dissidents’ ranks. Initially, they were taken to a camp in Miraflores, in the neighboring department of Guaviare, where they were taught to fire a weapon and given explosives training.
“It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen a gun. They taught us how to shoot. I started crying,” she told InSight Crime.
After four weeks, Luisa and her sister decided to escape. Under the cover of darkness, they made a run for it with several other children who’d been abducted.
“We spent all night running, and the guerrillas were chasing us. We crossed a river, swimming. We took off our clothes, boots and everything,” she said, her voice cracking at the memory. “The others couldn't make it because they didn't take off their boots. But my sister and I did. They were killed, and we survived.”
Many of the minors forcibly recruited in Vaupés are taken from their schools, according to local officials. The overwhelming majority of the region’s students are at boarding schools, known locally as “internados.”
Clara Santa Cruz is a former regional education secretary in Vaupés, who said the schools have become hunting grounds for the former guerrillas.
“Children are grouped together and without their parents. They are left to their own devices after classes end each afternoon, and sometimes there simply are not enough staff to look after them. They’re basically sitting ducks,” she explained.
The Colombian government has been accused of ignoring the disturbing rise in forced recruitment, which is reaching pre-2016 peace deal levels. But ministers deny they are on the backfoot. They point to government programs such as one launched on Facebook by the First Lady last year. The program, entitled "Súmate por mí," (Join with me), aims to provide a range of support structures for young people, including socioeconomic programs, sports and cultural activities, and training about human rights and preventing child recruitment.
The scheme is intended to work with vulnerable communities across the country but it has run into difficulty precisely because it is a government-run program. Local authorities in the town of Tame, the department of Arauca, told InSight Crime that rebels with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) have banned the project in several rural schools in the town. In fact, non-governmental organization officials and government employees have been barred from entering several neighborhoods under guerrilla control.
*Mathew Charles is a freelance journalist and investigator with the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá.