On the morning of September 6, school was canceled at the José Maria Obando high school in Corinto, a small town in Cauca, Colombia. Instead of the typical bustling of 400 students chatting and filing into classrooms, there was only unsettling silence. When school employees arrived that morning, they found notebooks riddled with bullet holes scattered across empty classrooms. Chalkboards and hallway walls were pockmarked and scarred by the over 140 shots that police had fired into the building.

“You can see from the sprays of bullets —in the entire school, on the walls, in the stands — that it’s right in the line of fire,” an educational worker who asked not to be named told InSight Crime.

The school is located off the town square, directly between the police station and La Loma de la Cruz, a small hill one kilometer from the school. The night before, members of a local ex-FARC mafia faction targeted Corinto’s police station from atop the hill. The police returned fire. 

No students were in the school, but a security guard was there, turning on the lights for the evening. Seeing movement inside the building, officers at the police station believed the attack was coming from the school. They began firing at the campus, piercing the walls, windows, and chalkboards with 146 bullets, according to reports from local media outlets.

The assault left the campus destroyed, a vivid example of how armed actors disrupt the lives of children across Colombia, drawing them into the violence from an early age. Throughout the country, criminal groups have long fought for control of drug crop production sites, trafficking routes, unauthorized mining zones, and other illegal economies, often catching locals in the crossfire. In their territories, these groups can act as de facto authorities, using threats and force to police movement, oversee commerce, enforce social rules, and demand “taxes” from residents.

For a tiny percentage of people in rural areas like Corinto, the violence swirling around them can lead them to participate in criminal activities. These criminal groups often represent one of the few economic opportunities, using the promise of wealth –or force, if necessary – to recruit youth into their ranks. These recruitment practices perpetuate violence by strengthening armed groups.

This is the cycle of violence that the government is hoping to break with its so-called Total Peace (Paz Total) policy, an ambitious, multi-pronged negotiation effort across the country, including Cauca.  And while the tragedy in Corinto is a singular incident, it is a microcosm of a broader crisis affecting children across the nation, undermining the government’s efforts.

The Lure of Illegality

Corinto children are, in a way, victims of circumstance. Situated at a crossroads connecting the departments of Tolima, Huila, Valle del Cauca, and Cauca, Corinto is a strategic location for criminal groups.

The dominant criminal group in the area is the Dagoberto Ramos Front, a faction of dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas affiliated with the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC). The FARC was once Colombia’s oldest insurgency until signing a peace accord in 2016. Factions of these accords have since broken from the process, forming criminal groups.

Unlike their FARC predecessors, these dissident groups are no longer “fighting about ideology or rights; now they are focused on financial gains,” a resident of Corinto, who preferred to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: 3 Takeaways From UNICEF Report on Child Recruitment in Colombia

In addition to its strategic location, Corinto has a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest marijuana. Many families depend on marijuana and coca crops for their livelihoods, with children working on farms on weekends or when not attending school.

“They know how to harvest, dry, and process marijuana and coca because, unfortunately, it is their families’ way of life,” the local educational worker told InSight Crime.

Residents sell these illicit crops to armed groups, meaning a significant portion of the student population already has some association with criminal groups.

This creates a difficult challenge for educators.

Many students in Corinto do not see the value in education because the best way to earn a decent living that they can see is either producing crops or joining an armed group. Families can earn a teacher’s salary in just three days when crops are good, explained the source in the education sector.

Meanwhile, for those interested in pursuing higher education, the logistical and financial challenges make it extremely difficult.

“Many moms dream of [educating their children] and breaking free from this cycle, but it’s difficult. It involves a daily commute … which, with their income, is too much money.”

Child Recruitment

In addition to selling crops to armed groups, many families have members who have joined their ranks. As a result, children and teenagers often view these groups as role models.

“There are kids who sing the FARC’s songs, who love to watch them, who get excited when they hear a gunshot,” said the source in Corinto’s education sector. “ They are excited by it because it has been their whole reality. They are 15- or 16-year-olds who don’t know any other reality.”

Criminal groups lure children with promises of weapons and money, taking advantage of their poverty and vulnerability. When that does not work, they can resort to force.

“Minors have long been forcibly recruited in these territories, but it has become even more obvious in the last two years. One of the most affected areas is the Tierra Adentro region [south of Corinto], where there are significant cases of forced recruitment of both boys and girls,” an Indigenous leader told InSight Crime.

In the last three years, at least 500 boys and girls have been recruited by armed groups in Cauca, according to statistics from the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte de Cauca – ACIN), representatives of the organization told InSight Crime.

The process is systematic for the EMC-affiliated fronts in the department: the Dagoberto Ramos, Jaime Martínez, and Carlos Patiño, all under the command of the EMC. After recruiting the children, they take them to a training center in Toribío, another municipality in northern Cauca, a member of an international organization working in Cauca told InSight Crime. After months of training, they are assigned to one of the three dissident groups, depending on which front is in the greatest need of resources at the time, said the source.

The number of youngsters recruited by armed groups across Colombia has risen steadily since the 2016 peace accords with the FARC. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) — the country’s last remaining insurgency — has become the leading recruiter of minors, with 406 reported cases since 2016, while ex-FARC mafia groups have recruited 118, according to a study carried out by UNICEF and the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar – ICBF).

Still, the actual numbers of recruited children are likely far higher, which explains the difference between the number of reported cases in the study and the number of cases reported by ACIN. In Corinto, for example, parents and relatives have filed two or three cases of missing children each month in the past year. However, due to fear, most do not acknowledge that their children were forcibly taken — instead, families report them missing.  This contributes to a rising school dropout rate and means the cases are not counted towards the child recruitment statistics, said the source working in the education sector.

Nationwide, 69% of the recruited minors interviewed in the study lived in rural areas and came from low-income families, while 89% lived in regions like Corinto, where armed conflict was prevalent.

As the Colombian government pursues its ambitious Total Peace plan with the country’s main criminal actors, child recruitment has been a sticking point in multiple negotiations. 

After establishing a ceasefire with the EMC that was supposed to last from January 1 to June 30, the government suspended the agreement in May after four Indigenous minors were recruited and killed in Putumayo by the Carolina Ramírez Front, a bloc under the command of the EMC.

In August, the international non-governmental organization Save the Children denounced the government’s ceasefire with the ELN because it did not prohibit the recruitment of girls and boys over 15.

‘A Human Shield

The day after the September attack on the José Maria Obando campus, dissidents bombed the police station. The school decided to suspend classes for two weeks. High schoolers were then relocated to the primary school campus, where they attend classes in the afternoon on a shorter schedule.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the school arranged a sit-in to bring attention to the danger the school’s location posed.

Just hours after the protest ended, a 16-year-old student in José Maria Obando, who had participated in the sit-in, was assassinated while riding his motorcycle through the neighboring municipality of Miranda.

The circumstances of his murder remain unclear, but his death serves as a tragic reminder of the cycle of violence children in Corinto and across Colombia continue to face in regions with the presence of armed groups.

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s Total Peace May Be Unraveling

The town has also pleaded with local departmental authorities to relocate the police station. More than 500 people live near the building, and its proximity to the school puts the children at risk.

But police officers are reluctant to move to a different location, worried they would be more vulnerable to attacks elsewhere, a Corinto resident said.

“Unfortunately, we, the community, are their shield,” said the resident. “We’re a human shield.”

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