A report on child recruitment by Colombia’s criminal groups draws attention to the prevalence of the tactic across the region, as gangs exploit a low-cost, low-risk, and highly expendable source of manpower.

The report by Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict, entitled “No One to Trust: Children and Armed Conflict in Colombia,” is the result of two field studies conducted in 2011. Its findings paint a grim picture of minors entangled in an endless web of violence, helping to fuel it in some cases as they are forced or manipulated into becoming participants.

According to Watchlist, estimates on the number of child soldiers in Colombia vary from 5,000 to 14,000. Most troubling is the downward trend in the age of recruitment. Guerrillas and drug gangs have steadily lowered the bar, with the average age of those absorbed into these groups falling from 13.8 years in 2002 to 11.8 in 2009, said the report.

One of the main culprits in child recruitment is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which exploits social disenfranchisement in rural Colombia, where many feel abandoned by the state. By offering education and food, the guerrillas convince young people to “sign up,” and to recruit their peers, said the report. The average age of a recruits to the FARC is roughly 12 years old, with 85 percent doing so “voluntarily,” according to the International Crisis Group.

The other organizations primarily responsible for child recruitment are what the report refers to as “paramilitary successor groups” (aka BACRIM) who use children, sometimes as young as 9, as lookouts, informants and assassins. These groups employ similar tactic to the rebels, essentially promising children “a livelihood and a shiny uniform,” as one human rights worker told Watchlist, before absorbing them into their criminal structures. Young recruits are often supplied with drugs in order to manipulate them, reported Watchlist.

Watchlist uses the case study of a boy named Diego, who joined the Aguilas Negras shortly before he turned 14, to illustrate the gangs’ recruitment methods. The neo-paramilitaries offered Diego free meals in return for acting as a lookout. When he wanted to leave, they stopped feeding him and refused to let him see his family. He eventually became a hitman under the threat that if he did not murder, he would be killed himself. The ordeal effectively enslaved Diego to the group, as he told Watchlist.

Watchlist’s report came on the back of a March 6 report from the United Nations Secretary General on children and armed conflict in Colombia. This found that children were recruited, or threatened with recruitment, by criminal groups such as the Rastrojos and the Urabeños in 23 of Colombia’s 32 provinces. There was a threat of recruitment by the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 22 and five provinces, respectively. Particularly troubling are cases where the guerrillas and gangs worked together to recruit minors, with an example cited of the Rastrojos recruiting some 30 minors in Antioquia before selling them to the ELN.

What is clear is that the networks of child recruitment in Colombia are extensive and systematic, making the country one of the worst-hit in Latin America by the phenomenon. However, the recruitment of minors by gangs is a serious problem in other countries in the region.

For example, Mexican cartels use youths aged between 11 and 17 both from their own country and from the US to traffic drugs, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This cross-border recruitment of minors is not confined to trafficking. Texas law enforcement told Reuters last year that there was evidence of six Mexican groups operating in the state, using US youths to carry out surveillance operations. The gangs referred to the children as “expendables,” one official stated.

In Mexico, children have frequently been employed as “sicaritos,” or child assassins, to carry out hits and torture for drug cartels. One of the more infamous examples of this came in 2010 when 14-year-old Edgar Jimenez, alias “El Ponchis,” was arrested and charged with beheading four people. He stated, “I didn’t join [the gang], I was pulled in. I got high on weed and didn’t know what I was doing.”

This problem spreads through the Central American isthmus. As analyst Melissa Beale notes, in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, “Gangs have infested the very backbone of local communities,” with numerous reports from the area pointing to an alarming rate of child involvement in gang activity. Gangs in Brazil also employ children, plying them with drugs to desensitize them to the acts of violence they are ordered to commit, according to De Spiegel.

Child recruitment is hard to stamp out because young people are a valuable asset for criminal groups. A child or young teenager is far less likely to arouse the suspicion of authorities. They also represent a cheaper source of manpower than an adult, given they are less likely to have a concept of what their work is “worth” to the gang.

Children are also far easier to manipulate than adults, especially if they are plied with narcotics. This is a common tactic, as evidenced by the numerous accounts of young recruits reporting that they they were acting under the influence of drugs. Even without drugs, gangs can exploit the “sense of fearlessness which normally manifests itself from the inevitable lack of maturity,” Beale states.

Young recruits, who often lack a family or guardian, are highly expendable. Should one be killed or arrested, there is always another, equally malleable young person that can be coerced and trained in gang activity.

While the work of child gang members, or soldiers, varies from country to country, gangs across the region employ similar techniques in recruiting them, drawing in those in poverty-stricken areas with the offer of money, food and prestige. Youths who have grown up in the midst of gang violence — with little or no chance of escape — may be in danger if they refuse. Combating this problem therefore involves addressing not only the gang structures themselves but also issues of education, employment opportunities and poverty.