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Taking care of the hostages was the saddest part for me. 301

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:

Kidnapped people are guarded in shifts, for example from nine until midday. I had to do it sometimes. We usually had some kidnapped people; it was rare to have none. They'd come and they'd go. Their families would come and pay for them, or sometimes pay part of the ransom and we'd let them go, and the family would continue paying in installments. The family always finds some way to pay. They get loans. Altogether, I saw more than thirty kidnapped people.304

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:

We had lots and lots of kidnapped people: four or five per month. We'd pick them up at roadblocks sometimes. Or in Cali, we'd enter the houses of rich

“We had lots and lots of kidnapped people: four or five per month.”

people. We'd bring the people back to camp. Each was guarded by two people at a time, for a two-hour shift. Their families would pay forty to fifty million pesos (U.S. $17,000- U.S. $22,000) per person. One person had a hundred million peso (U.S. $44,000) ransom.305

Darío was aware of how long some of the hostages had been held:

There were five of them in the camp, all men, between the age of twenty and forty. One was a school headmaster. Others were company men. One guy had already been there for three years when I arrived. He was still there when I left. During the day, they could walk around, but always accompanied by a guard. At night, they were tied up in a hammock, in a tent eight meters by eight meters. A guard shift lasted two hours. 306

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:

I had to take care of two kidnapped people in the zone for six months in 2000. I was allowed to talk to them, and I ended up being friends with them. The man was a fifty-six-year-old diabetic, and the woman was his mother. She was eighty-four, and had lots of health problems, she was diabetic. They were picked up driving in their car. He was rich. I heard that the FARC-EP wanted a ransom of a billion [U.S. $353,000]. A whole team took care of them. There were twelve of us. I was the only child. We treated them well. They had a TV. They could walk around.308

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 one thing that troubled me was when they kidnapped the candidate Ingrid Betancourt. I was present when they captured her. It was the 15th front that took her, but my unit was there, too. I felt very sorry for her. She was traveling without a bodyguard. There were three of us at the roadblock, but I was further back, in hiding at the roadside, keeping an eye out for the army. When they said they were going to take her, she got out of the car calmly and they captured her and took her away. They brought her to the camp. She was in the camp for three days and then they moved her, where I don't know.

They didn't mistreat her. It's prohibited to harm kidnapped people. They have to be given the best treatment. But I felt sorry for the lady because she is not used to conditions out in the countryside. The mountains are rough. You have to be trained for it. It rains a lot and you have to dry your clothes constantly. It must be really tough for her.310

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], (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.

307 Ibid.

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], (retrieved on May 1, 2003).


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September 2003