Irregular armed groups in Colombia have ramped up their recruiting of poor young people, who find themselves even more vulnerable with schools shut down indefinitely to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
In mid-June, Colombia's inspector general filed a report with the Attorney General's Office that warned of the recruitment of boys and girls across the country by a range of criminal actors, including Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) dissidents, known as the ex-FARC Mafia, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and eight other armed groups.
The alert follows the May rescue of five children who the ELN had kidnapped in the a rural region of El Bagre, a northern municipality in the department of Antioquia.
Then in June, two Indigenous girls, 12 and 14, were targeted by a criminal group in the southern Amazonas department, Caracol Radio reported. The army intervened after family members told officials that the girls had been threatened and pressured to join the group.
Since the beginning of 2020, authorities have rescued 12 minors in Colombia's Amazon region, home to dozens of indigenous groups.
According to Bogota-based non-governmental organization Coalición contra la vinculación de niñas, niños y jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia (COALICO), 128 cases of child recruitment were registered between January and April -- more than double the number of cases recorded in all of last year.
More than 30 cases of child recruitment were tallied in April, when the country was largely locked down due to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
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The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the immense vulnerability of poor youth living in remote regions of Colombia, who are prime targets for armed groups that have long histories of abusing minors.
According to Julia Castellanos, a researcher with COALICO, the coronavirus lockdown "has become an opportunity for armed actors to lead girls and boys astray or to threaten their parents...and thus make them join the group."
While useful in stopping the spread of COVID-19, Colombia's shutdown of schools has effectively halted the education of children in rural areas, where fewer than 10 percent have access to a computer or tablet to attend virtual classes.
The pandemic has also left many poor rural families without any income. Some are going hungry, and apparently armed groups are offering families food for their children's services.
Boys out of school are susceptible to offers of weapons, money or even drugs to entice them to join armed groups. Invitations to parties that are clandestine recruitment efforts have circulated on the popular messaging app Whatsapp.
Criminal groups, such as the ELN, have also used the pandemic lockdown to gather detailed information about children and adolescents living in areas under their control to later threaten their families, Prosecutor Carmen Maritza González told La FM.
Combatting child recruitment has become more difficult, since organizations which usually collect these complaints and bring them to the attention of authorities have seen their ability to travel to remote areas impeded by the lockdown.