<<previous  | index  |  next>>


I escaped one day during the day. I had left all my weapons behind. I was on guard duty and I snuck away. They caught me after an hour. The militia recognized me, even though I had changed into civilian clothes. I cried when they caught me. I begged them to let me go. They chained me up with a metal chain. I couldn't move my arms. At the war council, I wasn't allowed to talk. But luckily, they voted not to kill me. Instead, they made me dig twenty meters of trenches, make twenty trips to get wood, and ordered me tied to a pole for two weeks. I had to give a talk in front of everyone explaining why I had tried to desert, why I had made this mistake.

Adriana, the reluctant child guerrilla who told us this story, was lucky. The guerrilla war council chose not to order her execution. The paramilitaries who later caught her in combat spared her life and handed her over to the Colombian army. Adriana was given a place in a government rehabilitation program.

But apart from that good fortune, Adriana's story is typical. Her mother and brothers scratched out a living growing bananas and yucca, frequently falling sick. Adriana dropped out of school in first grade to work in the fields. Her parents fought constantly. Her mother often hit her. Friendly with the guerrillas, Adriana's grandmother persuaded her to join them. Adriana was twelve.

All of the irregular armed forces in Colombia's decades-old armed conflict--left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries--recruit children of Adriana's age, and even younger. Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children under the age of fifteen may not take part in warfare. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child raises the age limit to eighteen. It prohibits the compulsory military recruitment of children under the age of eighteen and establishes that "armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of eighteen years." (Consistent with international legal standards, the word "children" in this report refers to persons under the age of eighteen.)

At least one of every four irregular combatants in Colombia's civil war is under eighteen years old. These children, mostly from poor families, fight an adult war. Often, child combatants have only the barest understanding of its purpose. They

At least one of every four irregular combatants in Colombia's civil war is under eighteen years old.

fight against other children whose background is very similar to their own, and whose economic situation and future prospects are equally bleak. With much in common in civilian life, children become the bitterest of enemies in war.

From the beginning of their training, both guerrilla and paramilitary child recruits are taught to treat the other side's fighters or sympathizers without mercy. Adults order children to kill, mutilate, and torture, conditioning them to the cruelest abuses. Not only do children face the same treatment should they fall into the hands of the enemy, many fear it from fellow fighters. Children who fail in their military duties or try to desert can face summary execution by comrades sometimes no older than themselves.

Trained to use modern assault rifles from the age of eleven, young recruits march for days on end with little food, stung by insects and lashed by storms. Many die or are wounded in battles with government soldiers backed by helicopters and heavy artillery.

The recruitment of children by guerrillas and paramilitary forces has grown significantly in recent years. Neither side has made any serious effort to halt the practice. At times, both guerrillas and paramilitaries have offered to demobilize children to obtain favorable terms in negotiations with the government. This is not only a blatant attempt to trade for political advantage matters that should be beyond negotiation; none of the promises made to date have been honored. Each of the irregular forces in the conflict continues to flagrantly disregard its own regulations regarding the minimum age for recruitment. Moreover, the government has failed to protect children by enforcing Colombian law, which prohibits the military recruitment of children under the age of eighteen, and it has failed to bring to justice those responsible for this abhorrent practice.

In May and June 2002, Human Rights Watch conducted separate and private interviews for this report with 112 former child combatants, including seventy-nine former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), twenty former members of the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN), and thirteen former members of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). We interviewed them in government refuges for former child combatants; in a school run by the Interior Ministry's Reinsertion Program; and in a school run by a private institution.

Speaking with these former child combatants weeks or months after they had been captured or had deserted, we saw nothing remarkable about them at first. Rather, we found ourselves looking at the faces of seemingly ordinary, poor Colombian children. One girl caressed a doll as she spoke. Some boys had still unbroken voices. Slightly older boys sported fashionable haircuts, silver earrings, tattoos, and woven wrist bands. Several of the children were assertive and boisterous. Others were impassive. While our interviewees recounted stories of horror and destruction, the shouts of other children playing nearby were distressingly normal.

This report provides the first comprehensive account of child combatants in Colombia, and covers their recruitment, training, life in the ranks, role in combat, and treatment after desertion, capture, or rescue. Its conclusions are urgent and unequivocal ­ all sides in Colombia's conflict must end the recruitment of children, demobilize children from the armies and militia forces under their control, and, for the children's well-being and safety, hand them over to an appropriate national agency or international humanitarian organization.

There are no precise data on the number of child combatants in Colombia. To formulate an estimate, Human Rights Watch collated information provided by the children we interviewed, along with figures contained in reliable studies. These sources

This report provides the first comprehensive account of child combatants in Colombia, and covers their recruitment, training, life in the ranks, role in combat, and treatment after desertion, capture, or rescue.

supported the conclusion that the number of children in Colombia's illegal armies has grown markedly in recent years, reflecting policies and recruiting efforts common to all irregular forces. In our view, the total number of child combatants in Colombia likely exceeds 11,000. And we note that this is a conservative estimate, which may significantly understate the actual total.

In part because it is the largest group, the FARC-EP has the majority of child combatants. Both the UC-ELN and the paramilitaries also recruit children on a significant scale. Children gave us specific and detailed information about the high number of children who accompanied them in all three of these groups. Some children told us that child combatants made up the majority of fighters in the units in which they served.

Children are an especially vulnerable group in Colombia's triangular war between guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government security forces. Their lives and welfare are at risk even if they do not join an armed group. Children and their mothers make up the majority of the Colombian families forcibly displaced by war, and number in the hundreds of thousands. Children face reprisals, the destruction of their homes, and kidnapping. In Colombia's cities, stray bullets from guerrilla-paramilitary street wars and military clean-up operations claim the lives of dozens of children, even as they sit in their homes.

But the plight of Colombia's child fighters is dramatic even when viewed against this grim backdrop. Many choose to join an armed group because they feel safer under its protection. Most have little concept of what life as a combatant entails until it is too late to back out. In exchange for comradeship, food, and protection, children are exposed to disease, physical exhaustion, injury, sudden death, and torture at the hands of the enemy. Many lose all but the most tenuous family contact.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed children who were as young as eight when they started to fight. These children had special duties, like ferrying supplies and information, acting as advance early warning guards, or even carrying explosives.

By the time they are thirteen, most child recruits have been trained in the use of automatic weapons, grenades, mortars, and explosives. In the guerrilla forces, children learn how to assemble and launch gas cylinder bombs. In both the guerrillas and paramilitaries, they study the assembly of land mines, known as "foot-breakers" (quiebrapatas), then apply that knowledge by planting deadly killing fields. Usually, their first experience of combat comes soon after.

Children do not only risk their lives in combat. They are also expected to participate in the atrocities that have become a hallmark of the Colombian conflict. Human Rights Watch interviewed children who, as trainees, were forced to watch captives being tortured. Others were made to shoot captives as a test of valor. Some participated in assassinations of political figures and in "social cleansing" killings of drug abusers and petty thieves. Still others were ordered to execute comrades--even friends--captured while trying to run away.

In the debate over U.S. policy in Colombia, the recruitment of children by Colombia's illegal armed groups has been a secondary issue. Concern has focused more intensely on the Colombian military's tolerance of and complicity in other grave violations, including support for or tolerance by some units in Colombia's military for serious human rights abuses committed by paramilitary forces, including massacres, political killings, "disappearances," kidnappings, torture, and other mistreatment. Indeed, former paramilitary child combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch suggest that

They are also expected to participate in the atrocities that have become a hallmark of the Colombian conflict.

Colombian military personnel continue to help train paramilitaries, are in close and permanent contact with their commanders, and in some cases fight alongside them. This is so despite U.S. legislation requiring, as a condition for the receipt of military aid, that Colombia break the links between military units and paramilitary groups, and suspend and prosecute the military officers who collude with them.

In 2003, Colombia will receive over $750 million in U.S. aid, most of which is dedicated to military and police assistance. Given the continuing links between units of Colombia's military and paramilitary groups and their serious human rights violations, including the recruitment of children, the United States should apply more aggressively the conditions on military assistance.

Child Combatants with the FARC-EP

The FARC-EP shows no leniency to children because of their age, assigning children the same duties as adults. Those who break minor disciplinary rules are sent off to dig trenches or latrines, clear forest, cut and carry firewood, or do kitchen duties. If they lose a weapon, they may be forced to enter combat without one until they are able to recover a replacement from the enemy. To deal with serious breaches, a "war council" is held. Combatants hear the charges and the defence. A death sentence may be passed by a show of hands.

Children who desert are often shot, especially if they take their weapons with them. The same fate awaits suspected informers, infiltrators, or children who fall asleep on guard duty. The commander handpicks a group to carry out the sentence. The child, hands tied by nylon cord, is taken beyond the camp's perimeter and made to wait while the squad digs a grave.

Several children told Human Rights Watch that they had been ordered to carry out an execution of another child. Some said they had been selected deliberately because the victim was a friend. After the execution, usually by revolver shot, the body may be gutted before it is buried. The dead child's family is rarely, if ever, notified.

Children are also called upon to execute captured enemies. Several former FARC-EP child combatants described in detail to Human Rights Watch how guerrillas tortured captive paramilitaries by pushing needles under their nails, severing fingers and arms, and cutting their faces. Several children told us that their commanders made them watch these gruesome spectacles.

Internal FARC-EP regulations stipulate that fifteen is the minimum age for recruitment, which is in line with the norms of international humanitarian law. Yet the guerrillas have never respected the minimum age requirement, despite repeated promises to do so. More than two-thirds of the former FARC-EP combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch joined the group when they were age fourteen or younger, and most were recruited after the promulgation of these regulations in 1999.

Child Combatants with the UC-ELN

Like the FARC-EP, the smaller UC-ELN assigns children the same duties as adult guerrillas, including combat. The children we interviewed told us that the group captures and often executes suspected paramilitaries and informers, and carries out kidnappings for ransom. Its urban militias impose "street justice" in the neighborhoods they control, driving out or executing petty criminals and drug peddlers, and collect "taxes" from businesses.

The UC-ELN's rules permit children under the age of fifteen to take part in "revolutionary activities," but not in hostilities. In 1996, the UC-ELN raised the official minimum age for recruitment to its military force to sixteen. Yet more than half of the former UC-ELN members interviewed by Human Rights Watch joined the group when they were fourteen or younger.

The UC-ELN has entered into discussions with state agencies on international humanitarian law issues, including the demobilization of children, but has conditioned implementation on the opening of negotiations with the government. The negotiations have stalled. The UC-ELN retains hundreds of child combatants.

Child Combatants with Paramilitaries

For years, the paramilitaries grouped together in the AUC have committed massacres and atrocities against civilians in their efforts to drive guerrilla forces from disputed territories. Several of the former paramilitary child recruits Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report told us how they were forced to mutilate and kill captured guerrillas early in their training. Others described how they saw acid thrown in the faces of captives and how some captives were mutilated with chainsaws.

Most of the children who had fought with paramilitaries and were interviewed by Human Rights Watch had engaged in combat against the army and police. Notably, however, several described in detail counter-guerrilla operations in which paramilitaries had worked in close harness with military units, providing further confirmation of reports that some army units continue to lend support to paramilitary operations.

Unlike the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN, the paramilitaries regularly pay their recruits a salary, bankrolled by income from drug trafficking, extortion, and contributions. Although cases of forcible recruitment have been reported, the money seems to have been decisive in gaining new recruits. Once admitted into the ranks, if children attempt to desert, they risk capture and execution by their commanders as suspected infiltrators or informers.

The AUC is the only irregular armed group in Colombia that has established eighteen as the minimum age for recruitment. Nevertheless, the rule is not enforced. Like the guerrilla groups, the AUC recruits under fifteens into its ranks. Indeed, two-thirds of the former AUC members Human Rights Watch interviewed were younger than fifteen when they joined the group. The youngest two said that they joined when they were seven and eight.

Girl Combatants

Guerrilla units are from one-quarter to nearly one-half female, and may include girls as young as eight. The paramilitary forces have comparatively few female members and very few young girls.

Girls sometimes join to escape sexual abuse at home; in other respects, the reasons they join are similar to those of boys. Many told Human Rights Watch that in the guerrillas, they had roughly the same duties and possibilities of promotion as males.

Yet girls in the guerrilla forces still face gender-related pressures. Although rape and overt sexual harassment are not tolerated, many male commanders use their power to form sexual liaisons with under-age girls. Girls as young as twelve are required to use contraception, and must have abortions if they get pregnant.

Recruitment Methods

The great majority of child recruits to the irregular forces decide to join voluntarily. Yet forcible recruitment occurs in some parts of Colombia. Human Rights Watch interviewed thirteen former combatants, all of whom had belonged to either the FARC-EP or the UC-ELN, who described having been forced to join the ranks of the group unwillingly; they made up slightly more than 10 percent of

Guerrilla units are from one-quarter to nearly one-half female, and may include girls as young as eight.

the children we interviewed. Another two children said that they had been pressured to join a guerrilla group. And even the voluntary decision to join irregular forces is more a reflection of the dismal lack of opportunities open to children from the poorest sector of rural society than a real exercise of free will.

Irregular forces exploit children's vulnerability. They mount recruitment drives that glamorize the warrior life and tempt with promises of money and a brighter future. Some families send children to combat because they are unable to support them, and they know that membership in an armed group guarantees a square meal, clothing, and protection. Many children join to escape family violence and physical or sexual abuse, or to find the affection their families fail to give. Others crave the status of a gun or a cell phone. Camp life promises adventure, comradeship, and a chance to prove oneself.

The reality of life as a combatant is deeply frightening. But once incorporated, children cannot leave voluntarily. To the contrary, they know that the price of attempting to desert could be their lives.

Legal Standards

International humanitarian law applicable to civil wars prohibits combatants from recruiting children under the age of fifteen or allowing them to take part in hostilities. Many of the actions child combatants are ordered to participate in--summary executions, torture, murders and other attacks on civilians, kidnappings, and the use of indiscriminate weapons that cause avoidable civilian casualties--are also serious violations of international humanitarian law.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by all U.N. member states except for the United States and Somalia, also establishes fifteen as the minimum permissible age for military recruitment. In all other respects, the CRC's general definition of a child is any person under the age of eighteen. The Optional Protocol to the Convention, which entered into force in February 2002, corrected this anomaly by prohibiting the compulsory military recruitment of children under the age of eighteen. It also establishes that "armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of eighteen years."

When it ratified the CRC in 1991, Colombia proposed that eighteen, rather than fifteen, be the minimum age for military recruitment. By abolishing even voluntary service for under-eighteen-year-olds, Colombia now complies with the requirements of the Optional Protocol, which it has signed, but has yet to ratify.

Colombian laws have prohibited the recruitment for military service of children under age eighteen since December 1999. That month, the Colombian army demobilized more than 800 under-eighteen-year-olds from government forces. A National Police regulation adopted in January 2000 barred children from being incorporated into the police. Civil or military authorities who disregard the prohibition of recruitment of under-eighteens are guilty under law of misconduct and may be discharged. Under article 162 of Colombia's new criminal code, introduced in 2000, anyone who recruits children under-eighteen years of age or obliges them to participate directly or indirectly in the armed conflict faces a penalty of six to ten years' imprisonment.

Human Rights Watch has received no credible reports since of children serving in the regular armed forces or the police. There have, however, been some reports of children who have been used as spies or informers by police or army units, or have been encouraged to work in this capacity. The use of children as informers by the security forces places these children's lives in immediate danger.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

September 2003