The duties of child combatants often include guarding police or army captives or civilian kidnap victims held for ransom or a prisoner exchange. Several of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the responsibility for guarding prisoners rotated among combatants, including children. Some had acted as guards themselves.
A good number of kidnap victims are elderly people and city dwellers, for whom the anxiety caused by loss of contact with friends and kin and the constant discomforts of life in a remote rural camp are extremely difficult to bear. Several children who had guarded hostages said that they felt sad and upset about the captives' plight.
Both guerrilla and paramilitary forces resort to kidnappings, either to extort money, negotiate the release of prisoners, disrupt travel, exert political influence, or impede the electoral process.
Most kidnappings are carried out by guerrillas. According to Fundación País Libre, an independent nongovernmental organization that studies kidnapping in Colombia, the FARC-EP carried out 936 kidnappings in 2002.302 The vast majority are perpetrated against non-combatants who are not political figures. These have become so prevalent that ordinary, daily travel within many regions of Colombia has become extremely dangerous.303
Children in the FARC-EP camps reported that they would take turns guarding hostages, their AK-47s at hand, working in two or three hour shifts. As Ángela, who served four years in the FARC-EP, explained:
Dagoberto, who joined the militia at age nine and was a full-blown guerrilla commander at age thirteen, reported that some victims were kidnapped in their homes:
Darío was aware of how long some of the hostages had been held:
Most of the children who had guarded hostages told us that they had been allowed to talk to them freely, and some got to know their captives and came to consider them friends. "We could talk to them about anything," Darío told us.307
As sixteen-year-old Lenny recalled:
None of the children we interviewed reported that hostages were deliberately ill-treated. In fact, they were often given the best quarters and facilities the camp could provide. Nevertheless, their suffering upset many of the children.
Sixteen-year-old Severo, from Caquetá, was present when the FARC-EP abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt on February 23, 2002, a few days after the breakdown of the peace negotiations.309
The UC-ELN raises money from ransoms and has kidnapped many business people, especially oil executives and pipeline workers. In 2002, País Libre counted at least 776 kidnappings of individuals for ransom or to exert political pressure by the UC-ELN.311
Although Carlos Castaño has stated repeatedly that he does not condone the practice, the AUC has kidnapped people as well. País Libre recorded 180 kidnappings carried out by groups allied with the AUC in 2002.312
301Human Rights Watch interview with "Lenny," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
302País Libre, "Autor Secuestro 2002" [online], http://www.paislibre.org:8080/secuestros_2002.pdf (retrieved on May 1, 2003).
303"Por buen camino," Semana, January 13, 2003.
304Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
305Human Rights Watch interview with "Dagoberto," Medellín, June 5, 2002
306 Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
308 Human Rights Watch interview with "Lenny," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
309The FARC-EP kidnapped the former senator and presidential candidate for the Oxygen Party on February, 23, 2002. Betancourt was stopped at a roadblock as she was driving to San Vicente del Caguán in the Zone. She was attempting to visit the region following the Colombian government's decision to reenter. "Pastrana rechazó secuestro de Betancourt y pidió respaldo internacional," El Tiempo, February 26, 2002.
310As of this writing, Betancourt remains a FARC-EP hostage. Human Rights Watch interview with "Severo," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.
311País Libre, "Autor Secuestros 2002" [online], http://www.paislibre.org:8080/secuestros_2002.pdf (retrieved on May 1, 2003).