Since 1997, Colombian law has not allowed the recruitment of children into the armed forces or police until they have reached the age of eighteen (the "straight-eighteen" rule).
Recruitment for military service of under eighteen-year-olds is prohibited by Law 548 of December 23, 1999, which extended for three years (until December 23, 2002) the provisions of Law 418 of December 26, 1997. Law 548 abolished the only exception to the straight-eighteen rule contemplated in Law 418, namely that which permitted eleventh grade students to join up before reaching eighteen if they had parental consent.
Law 418 provides that civil or military authorities who disregard the prohibition of recruitment of under-eighteens are guilty of misconduct and may be discharged. Whereas members of armed groups are subject to criminal penalties for recruiting children, the law fails to consider underage recruitment by military or police officers to be subject to criminal prosecution.
On December 20, 1999, 618 persons under the age of eighteen were discharged from the army, and more than two hundred other from other government forces.314 Human Rights Watch has received no credible reports that children continue to serve in the regular armed forces or the police.
However, we have received testimonies indicating that individual children have been used as informants by army units. In The Ties That Bind, a Human Rights Watch report published on February 23, 2000, we detailed the record of the Colombian Army's Third Brigade, which government investigators had linked to the formation of paramilitary groups in the department of Valle. During its January 2001 mission to Colombia, Human Rights Watch interviewed Felipe, an adolescent who worked for Third Brigade intelligence when the AUC's Calima front was formed. At the time of our interview, Felipe was in protective custody ordered by the Attorney General's Office because of threats to his life.315
Felipe told Human Rights Watch that he began working for the Third Brigade when he was fourteen, collecting intelligence on guerrillas in return for money. He also worked for the Palacé Battalion, part of the Third Brigade, and accompanied army units on operations. "The first meeting I attended that was between paramilitaries and the army was about March 1999, in the headquarters of the Third Brigade in Cali," Felipe said. "They were gathering together all of the details about the rich people in the area so that they could contribute money to bring the paramilitaries into the region."316
Fernando, a fifteen-year-old from Cazucá, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Bogotá, told Human Rights Watch that in early 2002 he was approached by an army officer, who offered him more than five million pesos [U.S. $1,670] to work as an army informer. The officer told him that any information he provided would be passed to the Gaula, the joint army and police specialized anti-kidnapping unit. "He asked me if I wanted to help him and earn some money. He said he would give me money for clothes, a room, and to continue my studies. He said he would send me somewhere else where nobody knew me."317
Col. Luis Alfonso Novoa Díaz, coordinator of the Human Rights Unit of the National Police, told Human Rights Watch that the police do not permit the recruitment of children as informers. He admitted, however, that isolated cases may occur, particularly since the police receive information volunteered by the public, including children. He said he did not know of any case in which a police officer had been disciplined for using children as informers. 318
The use of children as informers by the security forces places these children's lives in immediate danger. Indeed, they place at risk any child who might be suspected of being an informer. In an irregular war like Colombia's, the risk such children run of capture or execution may be as great as if they were regular combatants. Since informers are not uniformed and work under cover, their recruitment is difficult to prove and easily deniable by the armed force responsible.
313Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
314Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, "1379 Report," November 7, 2002.
315Felipe's testimony was part of the case prepared by the Attorney General's Office against Palacé Battalion commander Col. Rafael Hani Jimeno. The case is summarized in the decision ordering Hani's arrest, filed under Case Number 835 and dated December 21, 2000. Human Rights Watch interviewed Felipe on January 19, 2000. Prosecutors later closed the case against Hani without filing formal charges.
317Human Rights Watch interview with "Fernando," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.
318Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Luis Alfonso Novoa Díaz, Coordinador Grupo Derechos Humanos, Policía Nacional, Santafé de Bogotá, May 27, 2002.