Armed groups target Colombia's children as reform process slows

For families in province of Cauca, time is running out as drug gangs and guerrilla groups exploit Covid chaos

Luis Troches was walking home from the shop in late July when armed men stopped him along a dirt road in south-west Colombia. They gave the 14-year-old an ultimatum: he could join their group – dissidents from the demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) – or they could take him and his 11-year-old sister by force.

“He came home scared and distant,” said his mother, Luzmery. Both knew that the men, who control their hamlet in the north of Cauca province, would be back for an answer. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to go. What should I do?’”

With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing across Colombia, armed groups are exploiting Covid-19 measures intended to protect the public to escalate conflicts over territorial control and drug-trafficking routes. Indepaz, a local conflict watchdog, has reported 68 murders this year, often involving young people, and the killing of 246 community leaders.

Child recruitment rates, which had gradually increased since the 2016 peace deal, rocketed this year as the pandemic closed schools and worsened living conditions.

With communities doubly affected by the armed conflict and the pandemic, protesters are once again pouring into the streets of Bogotá, demanding government action. Around 10,000 protesters arrived in the capital last month from Cauca, seeking an urgent meeting with President Iván Duque over renewed violence.

“We don’t want any more massacres,” said Luzmery, who travelled more than 500km in a mass bus caravan to join protests. “We’re tired of our youth being recruited or killed.”

Aside from stronger protection measures, protesters demanded an improvement to rural conditions, as accorded in the peace deal and previous agreements with local people, but that they say the government has been slow or unwilling to implement.

In the wake of a peace treaty with Farc rebels that ended more than half a century of war, a complex array of smaller leftist guerrillas, far-right paramilitary factions and drug cartels are competing for control of lucrative drug routes. Some Farc members have also rearmed and regrouped.

Along with murdering youth and community leaders, armed groups are recruiting children to exert control over people and fill their ever-expanding ranks.

Communities with few basic amenities are at greater risk of child recruitment.
Communities with few basic amenities are at greater risk of child recruitment. Photograph: Cristian Garavito Cruz

The pandemic has emboldened groups to ramp up these illegal practices. According to Coalico, a group monitoring the conflict’s impact on children, 190 children were recruited in the first five months of the year – a fivefold jump from the same period in 2019, when the figure was 38.

These forced recruitments are concentrated in areas with extreme poverty and poor access to basic services. They have increased along the Pacific coast and south-west region.

“If a community doesn’t have access to running water, education, recreational spaces and other basic elements, then the risk of child recruitment increases,” said Julia Castellanos, a researcher at Coalico.

Militias lure children with promises of cash, mobile phones and motorcycles. Sometimes they offer up to $400 (£303) a month – almost twice the minimum wage – a fortune for families living in poverty.

The economic fallout of the pandemic, which threatens to reverse two decades of social progress in Colombia, has made cooperating an attractive option.

“They appeal to them with … the false notion that being part of the group is an advancement,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Schools – usually a safe place – have remained closed for months leaving children on the streets and more exposed to recruitment. Due to poor internet access, phone signals and electricity, at least 13,000 students had given up on their studies by August.

The crisis poses a dilemma for officials, who seek to protect children from the virus as well as keeping them in school. Castellanos said some communities are experimenting with radio lessons as schools struggle to reopen under strict conditions, but need institutional support to continue.

A new government plan announced this summer in coordination with the UN’s children and migration agencies may seriously address the problem of child recruitment. It aims at strengthening reporting mechanisms and early warning systems in 16 regions.

Still, many insist that the government is failing to do enough to protect their children. Key features of the peace deal aimed at addressing the roots of the armed conflict, such as rural reform and development, remain pending – and may take another 10 years to fully implement, according to the Comptroller General’s Office.

For families in the north of Cauca, time is running out. Luis and his family fled the area, but other children have not been able to run away. In the rural hillsides of Corinto, Gonzalo Cuetia, a local patrol chief, said 20% of young people had been recruited into armed gangs this year in a blow for his community and the wider peace process.

“In our families and in our communities, we dream that our youth can replace us as defenders of life,” said Cuetia. “We want them to support the community, not destroy it.”

• This article was amended on 9 November 2020 to clarify that while Cauca is a province in the south-west of Colombia, the area in question is in the north of the province.

Christina Noriega

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘We can transition to a better country’: a trans Colombian on diversity in ecology and society
Brigitte Baptiste has a high profile as a transgender Colombian woman and an ecologist – in a country where both are targeted

Genevieve Glatsky

03, Jan, 2022 @12:15 PM

Article image
Peace is war as armed groups roil Colombia's lawless border region
A peace deal with Farc guerrillas was meant to end decades of conflict but in Catatumbo violence is worse than ever

Joe Parkin Daniels in Ocaña, Colombia

20, Jul, 2019 @11:02 AM

Article image
‘I miss school’: 800m children still not fully back in classes
Rights groups warn that children across the world are being pushed into abusive situations, from early marriage to child labour

Harriet Grant, Sally Hayden, Ruchi Kumar, Luke Taylor

05, Apr, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Colombia's armed groups sow seeds of new conflict as war with Farc ends
Last year’s deal with the guerrilla group left a power vacuum, putting authorities and residents on edge amid new violence: ‘Everyone’s nervous’

Sibylla Brodzinsky in Argelia

18, Apr, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘We must not show fear’: Colombia’s children learn to defend their way of life – a photo essay
In Cauca province, where hundreds of environmental defenders have been killed since 2016, children aged five to 15 are taught non-violent ways to avoid recruitment into militias and protect their land

Steven Grattan in Toribío, Colombia

25, Jul, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
If Colombia is to realise its potential, its people must vote for peace | Jonathan Glennie
By rejecting violence, Colombia can achieve social progress and reinvigorate development cornerstones such as education, healthcare and employment

Jonathan Glennie

26, Sep, 2016 @9:36 AM

Article image
'We have a right to be at the table': four pioneering female peacekeepers
Twenty years after a landmark UN resolution, leading figures share insight on women’s vital role in mediating conflict

Carmela Fonbuena in Manila, Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá, Liz Ford and Kate Hodal

29, Oct, 2020 @10:30 AM

Article image
'People are tired of 70 years of killings and violence': Colombia's peace process
Two activists in Colombia talk about their hopes and fears over bringing an end to the world’s longest running civil war

Clár Ní Chonghaile

09, May, 2016 @11:57 AM

Article image
Colombia's hidden victims finally get their day in court
A new special tribunal, a provision of the 2016 peace deal, is forcing the country to reckon with the sexual violence of its past

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

21, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Colombia's ex-guerrillas: isolated, abandoned and living in fear
A tumbledown camp is home to many former Farc rebels four years after peace accords while hundreds more have been killed

Joe Parkin Daniels in Carrizal

03, Feb, 2021 @4:39 PM