A new report warning of child recruitment in a municipality bordering Colombia's capital city of Bogotá shows that this issue is a nationwide concern, spreading far beyond its rural areas.
On March 15, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación -- PARES) published a report claiming that a group known as "Los Paisas" is recruiting minors in Soacha, just to the southwest of Bogotá.
According to the organization, this gang had recruited at least 10 young people in January before transporting them to the municipality of Bello in the department of Antioquia.
The recruitment reportedly takes place in the neighborhood of La Isla, mainly inhabited by the Afro-Colombian community. The young people allegedly begin by being hired as microtraffickers before being pressured to take part in the broader gang structure.
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In a conversation with PARES, the director of the National Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians (Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados -- Afrodes), Marino Córdoba, claimed that at least one of these minors had since been killed, but that the family had not reported the incident for fear of reprisals.
The report mentions on-the-ground interviews which state that Los Paisas, despite being better known for their involvement in microtrafficking, were recruiting children for a number of different reasons, including as extra manpower to secure territory and as expendable bodies when fighting other criminal groups.
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Being so close to Colombia's largest urban center has not prevented armed groups from moving into Soacha, taking advantage of a perceived lack of state presence to recruit minors.
Los Paisas emerged after the demobilization of the Capital Front of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Frente Capital de las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia -- AUC) and are tied to the Oficina de Envigado, a criminal federation that regulates many criminal activities in Medellín, the capital of Antioquia. The group has maintained a presence in Soacha since 2008, according to information from the Ombudsman’s Office.
But the PARES report worryingly notes that the group's recruitment of minors in Soacha has been helped by close ties to local authorities, which it claims look the other way.
Testimonies collected by this organization highlight the community’s deep-seated mistrust of the police, who are accused of receiving bribes to protect Los Paisas and allowing them to sell drugs in Soacha.
Due to its geographic location, with both rural and urban areas, Soacha is a strategic corridor connecting the central and southeastern parts of the country. Additionally, with 67 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to the local government, the town has seen a proliferation of armed groups.
The Ombudsman's Office has identified the presence of some of Colombia's most powerful armed groups in Soacha, including the Urabeños, Rastrojos, Águilas Negras, National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN) and more recently Los Paisas, with reports of extortion, forced displacements, and forced recruitment.