Youth in Colombia continue to be trapped by a range of armed groups, which use everything from bribery to death threats to get them into their ranks, a new report finds.
The report – published in February by the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory, a partnership between InSight Crime and Bogotá-based Universidad del Rosario – looks at the span of child recruitment in Colombia, where all but two departments registered cases between 2017 and 2020.
Child recruitment has been climbing since the signing of the government's 2016 peace accords with the now-extinct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), once Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the report's author, Mathew Charles, found.
For his research, Charles used extensive fieldwork, databases of several nongovernmental organizations, and the published records of local government and police offices. Child recruitment has only worsened amid the pandemic, which shut down schools and other activities while giving irregular armed groups greater control of territories as resources were shifted elsewhere.
Below, InSight Crime unpacks five key takeaways from the publication.
By the Numbers
Concentrating primarily on boys between the ages of 12 to 15, armed groups reportedly recruited 1,020 youths during the four years of the study, though this number is undoubtedly far higher, considering that many victims and their families choose not to report such activity.
Mired in conflict due to their location along drug supply lines, the departments of Córdoba, Antioquia and Chocó accounted for nearly half of all incidents recorded.
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities were at the greatest risk for child recruitment. Minors were used as local guides or simply additional soldiers, the report found.
Key Drivers of Recruitment
Without question, competition for territorial control is the main catalyst for illicit recruitment, as armed groups turn to children and adolescents to boost their numbers.
Conflicts driving illicit recruitment included the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) guerrilla force battling the Urabeños drug clan in the northwestern department of Chocó. And dissidents with the FARC drew upon minors in their fight with military forces in the department of Meta.
The report noted that such rivalries did not necessarily have to be violent to spur child recruitment. For example, in the municipality of San José de Guaviare, FARC dissidents compete with the Urabeños and other armed groups for control of valuable drug trafficking routes into Venezuela and Brazil.
A tacit peace agreement exists in this zone, with the groups having divvied up the various routes, yet the area still ranked in the top five Colombian municipalities for recruitment of minors.
The Recruiter's Playbook
To this day, coercion and death threats remain common forms of recruitment, especially in areas where armed actors lack the tools or time to entice youths. Their modus operandi depends entirely on the region, adapting to the resources and level of social control that a group exercises over a community.
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Methods employed by armed groups included offering money, drugs, alcohol, clothes, motorcycles or weapons. The groups have even organized soccer tournaments. Individuals, both male and female, have also received offers of sex from older members.
One former recruit put it simply: "I saw that they lived comfortably, with motorcycles and money. For that reason, I decided to go with them to the mountains."
Indeed, financial incentives appear to have increased as the average payment to recruited youths used to hover at around $380, but as the report found, those numbers have jumped to roughly $964 in Tumaco.
In regions where poverty and minimal state presence leave young people with few alternatives, such incentives can be more than enough to spur enlistment.
Beyond the Countryside
Though often framed as a predominantly rural issue, urban youth are also preyed upon. The cities of Montería and Medellín are ranked among the top ten municipalities for recruitment cases nationwide.
Links among large-scale trafficking organizations and local gangs drive this recruitment.
"Violent, armed non-state groups are forming ever-more alliances with urban gangs to assist them in trafficking and selling drugs," the report states.
Magnified by the Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic created ideal conditions for armed groups to lure minors into their ranks.
The health crisis and prolonged quarantine orders due to the pandemic increased poverty, and allowed armed groups to boost their social control in many communities.
The shutdown of schools in rural areas meant that children, many of whom lacked internet access and computers, were left to fend for themselves. The free time and lack of supervision provided them with ample opportunities to carry out assignments for armed groups.
The report cited one example in the department of Córdoba in which the Urabeños drug gang allegedly stole portable computers that had been sent to a local school to prevent the students from attending classes online.