Children serve in a wide range of roles in criminal organizations: errand boy, landmine builder, frontline combatant and assassin. In this, the second of a three-part investigation by InSight Crime about the recruitment of minors in Colombia by criminal groups and insurgents, we explore how minors are used by crime groups of all stripes.
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.
When Yuli’s brother was killed two years ago in clashes with security forces in San Calixto, in the northern Colombian state of Norte de Santander, the insurgency who he’d fought with saw an easy way to replace him.
Members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the country’s last remaining guerrilla group, came to Yuli’s farm and told her parents that she would need to take the place of her dead brother.
“They just took me,” she told InSight Crime in an interview. “They do whatever they want.”
Yuli was taken to a camp in the mountains and trained. Mornings were devoted to military exercise, while the afternoons usually included classes on leftist ideology. “There were about 20 of us. I knew some of them from school. I think most were under 18,” she said.
This is a pattern in Colombia as organized criminal groups are enlisting and exploiting youth. The recruits are useful. They can collect extortion fees, work in cocaine labs, or be forced into sex work. They can also sell and smuggle drugs, are used as assassins, and are often sent to the front lines of battle.
Yuli’s main task with the ELN was to make landmines. With just a plastic canister, syringe, battery and the smallest amount of explosives, Yuli and a production line of teenagers created dozens of lethal landmines each day.
“At first, it’s a horrible thought that what you’re making kills people,” she said. “But you have to stop thinking about it. Otherwise, you would never survive.”
Yuli, who was 18 when InSight Crime interviewed her, spoke with confidence and was articulate about her experience. She was lucky, able to escape the ELN with the help of a sympathetic commander.
Yuli now lives apart from her family. Former child soldiers like her are unable to return home for fear of reprisals and are instead housed with foster families or in state-run care facilities, where she did the interview with InSight Crime.
“The worst is not being able to see my parents all the time and being able to tell them I love them. But at least I’m alive,” she said.
The Catatumbo region of the state of Norte de Santander runs along the border with Venezuela. It has become a battleground for factions of the ELN and their criminal rivals, a former guerrilla group known as the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL).
The area has long been an EPL stronghold, but since the demobilization of another guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) in 2016, the EPL has sought to expand. For this, the group actively recruited.
One of those who joined during this time period was named Diego. He was 15 when InSight Crime talked to him, living in Benposta, a sanctuary in the mountains overlooking Bogotá that provides housing, education and a chance to heal for minors who manage to escape the grip of crime groups. He spent two years with the EPL.
“They order you to do stuff, but they don’t want to be your friend. It’s a lonely life inside,” he said.
While talking, Diego stared at the floor, picking at the skin under his fingernails. According to him, he received regular target practice, but as the youngest recruit, he was usually handed thankless assignments, such as cleaning weapons, doing the washing-up, or cleaning the boots of other soldiers.
“I’d spend whole days cleaning rifles. But I didn’t mind because it was easy work. The scariest thing were the battles,” he explained.
During his time with the EPL, Diego witnessed regular clashes with the ELN and the Colombian army. Due to his young age, they kept him at a distance, so he never had to fire on anyone, he said.
Another EPL recruit, Luis, was not so lucky. He left school when he was nine to harvest coca leaves and made his first contact with the EPL in one of their clandestine cocaine labs shortly thereafter.
“From when you’re a small child, you’re thinking about guns, that they’re cool,” he told InSight Crime in an interview at Benposta. “Crime is really the only job option where I lived.”
The EPL first began paying him to run errands, transport drugs and for information on potential ELN recruits.
“I didn’t realize I was being groomed. But looking back, that’s exactly what happened. They offered me money for favors, then they gave me work in a drug lab, and then I ended up going off into the mountains with them,” said Luis, dropping his grin for the first time.
He was 14.
Luis was given just two weeks of firearms training before he and the other new recruits faced an initiation test.
“The commanders said we were going to attack a police station, and so they took all the new guys to attack it, and we opened fire, until a plane arrived, and we retreated. I was scared because it was my first time. I was new. I had only been with them for 15 days,” he explained, speaking quickly and fidgeting.
“You had to fire your gun like a crazy person to stop yourself from getting killed," he said, while miming firing a rifle.
Home, School, Crime
Luis’ experience is common. Many youngsters begin by carrying out basic errands for organized criminal groups. In the troubled southwestern state of Cauca, teachers told InSight Crime that armed men, believed to be from FARC dissident groups, regularly watch students from just outside the school gates.
“Today, they want the brightest, the most confident, those able to galvanize a following,” said a principal from Jambaló, an Indigenous reserve south of Cali, who asked to remain anonymous.
Local authorities, the principal added, lack the resources and expertise to tackle what he called “new” forms of youth participation in organized crime.
“The focus has always been on protecting children from being abducted into an armed group. But now they live at home, come to school and fit in the criminality in their spare time,” the principal explained, talking about it as if it were a hobby.
Cauca sits along the Naya River corridor, which connects the country’s central mountain range to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean through kilometers of thick jungle. This makes it an appetizing transit point for drug shipments. Children and teenagers often carry the illegal merchandise.
One of these “mules” was Alejandro. Although he was just 13 when we spoke, he was tall for his age and exuded the type of confidence the FARC recruiters sought. He told InSight Crime he started doing regular drug runs for an ex-FARC cell in early 2019. Within six months, he said he had created a small network of “runners” made up of his friends from school. He was still doing it when we spoke.
“I coordinate four people and after each job, the bosses give me money to pay everyone,” he told InSight Crime.
Alejandro said he liked school, got good grades and was aware of the risks involved.
“If I lived elsewhere or came from a rich family, I’d probably go to university. I’d like to be an artist, if I’m being honest,” he said. “But living here in Cauca, I can only become involved in war, so I should make the most of it, I guess.”
Passing the Test
Minors appear to be attracted to these criminal groups because of the power and money they possess. But for new recruits to climb the criminal ladder and reach that power and money, they must win trust and build confidence in their abilities.
Efren, who joined the criminal organization known as the Urabeños in Zaragoza, a municipality in the northern Antioquia state, spent years trying to reach that pinnacle.
“It was really hard at first, but then it gets easier. I think you get used to it,” he said, staring across the Nechí river near the place where he lived and still worked for the group.
Efren said he was just 13 when he started selling drugs for the group. He was then given a gun and a patch of the town to patrol as a lookout.
By his nineteenth birthday, he was getting more grizzly assignments. One time, he said he was ordered to decapitate another teenager accused of stealing. It was a test.
“I didn’t flinch. Killing people is easy if you don’t look at their faces,” he stated, showing no hint of emotion.
From there, it spiraled, with assignments to kill becoming more frequent. Efren said he’d lost count of the number of people he killed.
“Sometimes I didn’t even know why I was murdering them,” he said of his seemingly out-of-body approach.
Efren was 21 when he spoke to InSight Crime and by then an unabashed junior commander with the Urabeños.
“When I think back to my life when I was 13, I had nothing. Now I have everything I want. I can buy clothes for my daughters, and I can feed them. I can take my girlfriend out to eat,” he told InSight Crime.
And while he admitted he often thinks of his victims, he added that it is a small price to pay.
“I’m constantly looking over my shoulder,” he said. “So many people want me dead. That’s no life, I suppose, but it’s worth it for the money.”
*Mathew Charles is a freelance journalist and investigator with the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá.
Top Image: ELN graffiti marks a wall in El Tarra, a Colombian town in the department of Norte de Santander (Mathew Charles).