The systematic recruiting of minors continues to be a strategy for non-state armed actors in Colombia to bolster their numbers, with the country’s Registry of Victims (Registro Único de Víctimas) numbering 8,798 children who have been pressed into armed groups.
Youth have only become more vulnerable to such predatory tactics due to the current coronavirus lockdown, with many children, especially in remote parts of the country, having become increasing isolated. Consequently, the recruitment of minors has increased over the course of the pandemic.
InSight Crime spoke with Julia Castellanos, a researcher from the Observatory for Childhood and Conflict, which is part of the Coalition against the involvement of children and young people in Colombia’s armed conflict (Coalición contra la vinculación de niños, niñas y jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia - COALICO), to discuss child recruitment dynamics in the country.
InSight Crime (IC): What type of incidents linked to child recruitment do you typically find in your monitoring?
Julia Castellanos (JC): We have been monitoring different situations that present themselves across the country. There are a number of areas that severely affect children. These are attacks on the right to life of children, including homicides and injuries from landmines; violations of personal liberty, namely kidnapping; the use and recruitment of children into armed conflict, which includes attacks on schools, hospitals and other infrastructure; sexual violations, which is very difficult to understand and observe nationally due to the complexity of these crimes; and the failure to provide basic services.
Across the board, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural communities have been the most affected, including during the coronavirus lockdown. The categories listed above are all laid by the United Nations Security Council in its mechanisms to prevent child recruitment. But Colombia must also deal with forced displacement and refugees. Based on statistics from the UN, at least 40 percent on average of those affected by mass displacement are children.
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The pandemic has made the situation far more complicated. Children can no longer go to school where they can feel safe. This has created huge risks. The schools have been designed as protective spaces, not just from recruitment into armed gangs but also from any violence in the home.
We have seen during the pandemic the problems facing children who are not in school but are staying at home, with parents often facing socio-economic difficulties and who have not been able to access even informal jobs. Armed actors have seized upon this situation as an opportunity to deceive and co-opt these children or to threaten parents to force children to join up.
IC: How do you define child recruitment?
JC: COALICO defines child recruitment as a concrete action taken by an armed group to take away children. They give them camouflage, a weapon and establish military dynamics, placing the child in a hierarchy of command. This is then used to make young children carry out specific tasks, which can include weapons trafficking, drug trafficking or occasionally spying on other armed actors.
Unfortunately, in the last three years, we have seen armed actors practicing other forms of recruitment, especially in areas of active conflict. It has become cheaper for them for the children to stay home and to keep going to school while carrying out specific tasks for the group. This has provided criminal groups with a new type of control, extending into the private space of the child, into the community and even into the schools.
This type of dominance is often reinforced or legitimized through the consent of the parents. The parents are often in difficult economic situations so having their child in an armed group gives them a feeling of security or of protection. In some cases, families have received money, food or clothing from criminal groups that have recruited their children.
IC: How have the levels of violence against children changed, since coronavirus protection measures began in Colombia?
JC: Having to attend school virtually is very different for children in rural areas than in towns or cities. We would need a far more solid communications infrastructure for this to be viable in rural areas.
Due to this, we have noticed many violent acts against children during the lockdown. From the start of the lockdown until mid-May, we had seen 133 violent acts, which overall affected 7,142 children (recruited, displaced, injured or killed.)
During the lockdown, we have also seen a highly particular dynamic, which is the targeted killings of children who are related to social leaders. There has been a marked increase in the killings of such children in attacks either on or linked to social leaders.
IC: Lockdown measures have especially affected children, due to the closing of schools. How has this played into recruitment dynamics?
JC: It is a very worrying situation and we issued an alert about this. We fully recognize the importance of looking after the population’s health. But the schools being closed have created very complex situations for children.
This has created ideal scenarios for armed actors to get access to children through different recruitment strategies. These can range from offering them clothes, buying them or charging up a cell phone, providing a biweekly or monthly salary for carrying out tasks such as collecting extortion payments or tolls on vehicles. Armed actors are taking full advantage of this complex situation.
IC: In which parts of Colombia is this recruitment happening and which criminal groups are most involved?
JC: We have seen different situations in different parts of the country. For example, Colombia’s entire Pacific Coast has seen instances of child recruitment, including Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño and parts of Putumayo. We have received very strong alerts from the Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) about ongoing recruitment in many departments, but especially in Putumayo of late.
We have also very serious situations of armed actors having control of territory in the area of Catatumbo, Arauca, Meta and part of Guaviare. The Bajo Cauca and Magdalena Medio areas have also seen highly concerning instances of child recruitment from the ex-FARC Mafia and the ELN.
IC: Do some groups use this tactic consistently as opposed to others who only occasionally seek to recruit children?
JC: In the situations we monitor, we have often seen the involvement of more than one armed group in some areas. Child recruitment often happens in areas where different groups are contesting for territorial control. And we must remember it is not always possible to identify the criminal actors involved.
There is also an evolution in criminal actors as some groups, or even just their names, appear, disappear, come back and disappear again.
IC: What more could the government and civil society organizations be doing to reduce child recruitment?
JC: There is no magic answer. But we welcome the fact that the Attorney General’s Office has begun to take this topic more seriously and carry out more investigations. This is an important step in making visible a dynamic that many would like to keep hidden.
However, it is crucial to strengthen preventive measures as well. Organizations such as the Commission for the Prevention of Child Recruitment into Armed Conflict (Comisión Intersectorial para la Prevención del Reclutamiento de Niños y Niñas al Conflicto Armado – CIPRUNNA) are where many government efforts can come together. They take on great responsibility in terms of preventing recruitment and strengthening protective structures where the children live.
We cannot drop our guard in terms of monitoring and tracking child recruitment dynamics.