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Gunpowder gives you more energy, like with the desire to kill the troops passing in front of you. You say to yourself: I hope they come my way, and then you load up and shoot off a round and feel more capable, with better morale.

Colombian child guerrilla


Guerrillas call child combatants “little bees” (abejitas), able to sting before their targets realize they are under attack.130 Paramilitaries call them “little bells” (campanitas), referring to their use as an early-alarm system.131 Guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the security forces all routinely recruit children for combat.

Article 4 (3) (c) of Protocol II prohibits combatants from recruiting children under the age of fifteen or allowing them to take part in hostilities. In addition to domestic legislation protecting the rights of children, Colombia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which fixes a minimum recruitment age of fifteen.

Human Rights Watch supports the adoption of an optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to raise the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities from fifteen to eighteen and calls on the combatants in Colombia to adopt a minimum recruitment age of eighteen. Persons under the age of eighteen have not reached physical or psychological maturity and are ill-prepared to face the harsh conditions of warfare. Many who have volunteered or who have been forced to serve emerge at the end of hostilities physically and psychologically scarred, unprepared to live in and contribute to a peaceful society.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any human being under the age of eighteen, unless under the law applicable to the child,majority is attained earlier. Eighteen is also the voting age in the vast majority of

countries in all regions of the world. Establishing eighteen as a minimum age would be consistent with existing international norms and offer greater protection for children in situations of particularly grave risk.

Human Rights Watch also notes the growing consensus among independent, non-governmental, and inter-governmental sources for setting the minimum age for participation in hostilities at eighteen, including the recommendations made by Graca Machel, the U.N. secretary general's expert on the impact of armed conflict on children, in her 1996 report; the position taken by the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 1995; and positions taken by agencies such as UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Human Rights Watch believes that the prohibition on children's participation in hostilities should not be narrowly focused on “direct” participation. Children who serve in armed groups in support functions are often subsequently drawn into direct participation. This is particularly true in the case of conflicts like Colombia’s. It is worth noting that Protocol II does not limit its restrictions to "direct" participation, but calls on combatants to refrain from allowing children to participate in any way in hostilities.

Once drawn into a support activities, persons under the age of eighteen may be easily drawn into a direct role. In combat situations, military commanders may be tempted to make use of all resources at their disposal, including under-age troops. As military personnel, those under eighteen are considered combatants and may be the objects of attack, even without being placed in combat situations.


According to a 1996 report by Colombia’s public advocate, up to 30 percent of some guerrilla units are made up of children.132 The number of children in militias, considered a training ground for future fighters, can be much higher. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, one specialist who works with a government child welfare agency in Medellín, Antioquia estimated that 85 percent of the members of the guerrilla militias he works with are children.133

The UC-ELN is believed to have the most children in its ranks in relation to its total strength. Human Rights Watch received numerous testimonies from people familiar with the UC-ELN about child combatants. One told us that it is common to see a unit with fifteen adult commanders leading up to sixty-five child soldiers.134

The FARC and EPL also include children in their ranks. Although the FARC’s official recruitment age is fifteen, as one spokesperson noted in a published interview, there are exceptions:

There are areas where children beg insistently to join the guerrillas, but there are also situations in which their very own mothers, who are desperate, take their children to the guerrillas because their families live in misery... It’s very difficult to tell them no.135

In a similar vein, the EPL denies that it recruits children under sixteen. However, leader Francisco Caraballo noted that the group accepts children into its ranks if they are family members of militants. These children, Caraballo told us, are not permitted to take part in military actions. However, their activities may be just as dangerous. In April 1996, police reported capturing a fifteen-year-old girl apparently used to collect money extorted by the EPL from merchants in Anserma, Caldas.136

Despite their denials and qualifications, Human Rights Watch has received abundant information indicating that all three guerrilla groups continue to recruit children and use them as combatants. The FARC, for instance, has even carried out recruitment campaigns in elementary schools and children’s homes, promising to send families a regular salary. According to the Public advocate in Cali, Valle del Cauca, “[Guerrillas] have presented themselves in schools and the homes ofchildren offering to take the children to war, enticing them with stories about fighting and offering to sign them up, as a kind of adventure. They have offered their families money and guarantees of security in exchange for allowing their children to join the guerrillas.”137

While some children may join the guerrillas by choice, others are forcibly recruited. We consider forcible recruitment an additional violation of the laws of war, since it depends on threats of violence made by combatants against civilians, explicitly outlawed in Article 4 (2) (h) of Protocol II. According to a 1996 report by the office of the Public Advocate, 14 percent of the child guerrillas they interviewed for their study said they had been forcibly recruited.138

In regions dominated by the FARC, like the department of Guaviare, we have received credible reports that the guerrillas forcibly recruit children as young as twelve. Often, families do not report the forced recruitment of children for fear of reprisals.139

Other children are virtually born into guerrilla movements because their parents are members. Kept by others as infants, some are then forced to join their parents’ units. One fourteen-year-old told the Public Advocate’s Office that she joined the guerrillas at age twelve, brought by her mother. There, she was forced to cook and carry a shotgun (escopeta). After refusing to work, she was imprisoned, but managed to escape.140

Regardless of how a child comes to guerrillas, however, they are obligated to keep children from combat. Clearly, guerrillas recruit them in part because they consider children valuable assets. “Children are more intrepid, they have more bravery for war,” a guerrilla commander told investigators from the PublicAdvocate’s Office. “And although children are usually given no command responsibilities, they carry out their duties much better than an adult would.”141

Often, children are given the task of collecting intelligence, making and deploying mines, and serving as an advance shock force, to ambush the paramilitaries, soldiers, or police officers serving on point during patrols. To control his fear, one child guerrilla told the Public Advocate’s Office investigators, he and other children drank milk mixed with gunpowder. “Gunpowder gives you more energy, like with the desire to kill the troops passing in front of you. You say to yourself: I hope they come my way, and then you load up and shoot off a round and feel more capable, with better morale.”142

For these tasks, children are fully armed. One former child guerrilla, recruited at thirteen, told Public Advocate investigators that she had used pistols, AK-47s, Galils, M-16s, R-15s, Uzi submachine guns, Ingrams, and a 357 Magnum. “In the organization, you understand that your life is your weapon, it is your mother, it watches out for you day and night.”143

The FARC uses children to kidnap and guard hostages. One former FARC hostage told us that during her captivity at the hands of the FARC’s Thirty-Sixth Front, she had been guarded by a girl of fifteen. Many of the guerrillas she saw over a period of three months were children, she reported.144

Child combatants who manage to escape are considered deserters and can be subjected to on-the-spot execution. If guerrillas believe the child has given the Colombian security forces information, the punishment is death. One mother of a girl who escaped tried to get her former commanders to sign a “certificate of liberty” that would be distributed to other area units, to insure that her daughter would not be killed.145

Even children who have been captured by the authorities, convicted, and placed in juvenile detention centers are at risk of being killed. Between 1994 and1996, the Public Advocate’s Office found, 13 percent of the children convicted of belonging to guerrilla groups and imprisoned were killed while in custody, apparently by other child guerrillas in the same facilities. One government authority told investigators that he preferred to let these child guerrillas in custody “escape,” thus giving them a better chance of protecting themselves. “It is better to know that this girl or boy is alive some place than knowing that because of something we did, they were murdered.”146

In January 1998, the UC-ELN orchestrated a public release of children they said had given the army information used to mount the joint army-paramilitary attack on Media Luna, Cesar mentioned in this report. During negotiations, the UC-ELN released a statement expressing their “interest” in “taking minors out of the war” and added that a ban on their future involvement would be an important step in an eventual humanitarian accord between the Colombian government and insurgents.147

As we have pointed out repeatedly in this report, it is not necessary to have any accord for the laws of war to apply to any of the parties; their application is automatic and is meant to protect the civilian population, not serve the political interests of the parties in conflict.

Security Forces

As we noted above, Colombia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. At the time, Colombia made a declaration regarding Article 38 and voluntarily chose to accept a minimum age of eighteen for boys to define their military situation by either stating why they were unable to serve the obligatory twelve- to twenty-four-month term or begin their service.

However, Law 48, passed two years later, required all Colombian males who have either reached eighteen years of age or have completed secondary school (bachillerato) to define their military status, in effect invalidating Colombia’s international commitment. Boys who graduated before reaching eighteen wererequired to either state why they were ineligible for service or present themselves for induction into active service. Indeed, children were openly encouraged to serve

The UC-ELN released children they detained under suspicion of helping the army and paramilitaries mount the joint attack on Media Luna mentioned in this report. © Rafael Guerrero/El Tiemposince the mandatory term for those under eighteen was up to twelve months less than the mandatory term for adult males.148

After the Public Advocate’s Office drew attention to this contradiction, instead of honoring its international commitment, Colombia withdrew the declaration and continued to recruit children, an apparent attempt to boost the number of males available for service. After widespread protest from the parents of child soldiers, however, Congress passed Law 418 in 1997, exempting boys from obligatory military service until their eighteenth birthdays.

Nevertheless, boys under eighteen who choose to serve may still do so with parental permission. Law 418 and a 1997 Constitutional Court decisionprohibit recruits under eighteen from serving in a “theater of war” or in combat.149 However, this is a deceptive argument since much of Colombia can be considered a potential battleground and child recruits are often assigned to bases in areas where combat is a frequent occurrence. When a Public Advocate’s Office investigators visited a military base in Arauca in 1997, for instance, the investigator reported that soldiers were defusing a truck bomb with two child soldiers nearby.150

According to the armed forces, 7,685 children currently serve in the National Police, 7,551 in the army, 338 in the air force, and eighty-three in the navy, a total of 15,657. Of those, 22 percent, or 3,445 children, are fifteen and sixteen years of age.151

Both the army and police have also recruited children for civic outreach, then have put them in uniform in war zones, placing them at serious risk of attack. The police recruit children as young as seven years of age as “little patrollers” to take part in police-related activities. Although the approximately 14,000 Juvenile Civic Police and 15,000 Student Police are unarmed and take part primarily in directing traffic or other public safety activities, they are uniformed and work in war zones and are at risk of attack.152

On June 13, 1998, the UC-ELN abducted fifteen females, among them five children, who belonged to the “Steel Girls” program run by the army’s Fourteenth Brigade in Segovia, Antioquia. According to the press reports, the “Steel Girls” taught poor residents how to improve their reading skills, offered medical counseling, and conducted recreational events. However, guerrillas charged that they were armed and uniformed and conducted intelligence for soldiers.153

Clearly, the army has the power to conduct civic outreach programs; however, by placing children in uniform in a sharply contested war zone, they unnecessarily put them at risk and blurred the line dividing civilians from combatants.

Another way children serve in the security forces is by switching sides, from guerrilla to army ranks. According to the Public Advocate’s Office, the army has captured or accepted the surrender of children suspected of being guerrillas, then used them as guides and informants. This violates the children’s rights in several ways. Children face serious reprisals from their former comrades for working as informants. Also, they are coerced or threatened into serving the army, a kind of forced recruitment. Often, security force officers, in particular the army, simply fail to ever deliver children to the proper judicial authorities, keeping them in military barracks. In its report, the Public Advocate’s Office interviewed children who had been forced to patrol with troops, take part in combat, collect intelligence, and deactivate land mines.154

In 1997, CREDHOS reported that a fourteen- and sixteen-year- old detained by Los Guanes Battalion soldiers on May 5 were forced to don uniforms and hoods. They were used as informants during house searches. The two were later released to the proper authorities.155

Other child guerrillas remain in military barracks under Law 81, which allows the army to keep individuals convicted of terrorism in barracks confinement if they work as informants and guides. During a Human Rights Watch mission to Colombia in 1996, we were introduced to four children who lived in the Nueva Granada Base.156 This is illegal, since children are not considered responsible for their actions before the law in Colombia and therefore cannot be prosecuted or jailed. Instead, children twelve and older are required to be delivered to a juvenile judge (juez de menores), who can either release them to family or require that they be housed for a period of time in a government facility for children. Younger children are treated by Colombia’s Institute of Family Well-Being (InstitutoColombiano de Bienestar Familiar, ICBF), a child welfare department of the government.157

The army has also forced former child guerrillas to appear before the press and recite testimony prepared by the army and designed to discredit guerrillas. In the Public Advocate’s report, a fifteen-year-old who had surrendered to soldiers told investigators that it was necessary to collaborate in order to eventually be freed. “The next day, they presented me to the press, they told me that I had to say terrible things, that [the guerrillas] had forced me to join them, that the commanders had forced me to sleep with them... none of that is true, but [the soldiers] said that if I didn’t say these things, the devil would take me.” In this instance, the report noted, the army also forced the child against her will to speak with journalists, who took her photograph and published her name, seriously endangering her.158


According to the Office of the Public Advocate, up to 50 percent of some paramilitary units are made up of children. One former child paramilitary interviewed by the Public Advocate’s Office said he had been forcibly recruited at nine years of age. During the time he served, he had no communication with his parents. “There were more children like me, about eleven, and my same age. Another five were between ten and fifteen years of age. We were all serving two years.”159

Children as young as eight years of age have been seen patrolling with paramilitary units in the Middle Magdalena region. There, residents told Public Advocate’s Office investigators that paramilitaries consider service obligatory and service can last as long as two years. Families who refuse risk being considered sympathetic to guerrillas and attacked.160

“Unless they release their children for service, they must leave the area or risk being killed,” a social worker from the Chucurí region told Human Rights Watch.161

Other children are used as backup troops, to spy and patrol in their home regions. Girls are at particular risk according to the Public Advocate’s Office, which collected interview from girls who reported a high level of sexual abuse by adult paramilitaries.162

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, paramilitaries organized as members of the AUC deny they recruit children.163

130 Human Rights Watch interview with Colombian Family Welfare Institute (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, ICBF) specialist, Medellín, Antioquia, December 9, 1997. 131 While all three guerrilla groups admitted in interviews that there are children in their ranks, the ACCU specifically denied that it recruits children. Letter to Human Rights Watch from the ACCU, July 27, 1997. 132 Public Advocate’s Office, “El Conflicto Armado en Colombia y los menores de edad,” Boletín No. 2, Santafé de Bogotá, May 1996. 133 Human Rights Watch interview with ICBF specialist, Medellín, Antioquia, December 9, 1997. 134 Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian aid worker, December 1997. 135 Dick Emanuelson, “Interview with Olga, comandante guerrillera de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP),” Rebelión, October 14, 1996. 136 It is important to point out that even when a child may seek to join the guerrillas, they are obligated to prevent that child from taking part in hostilities according to Article 4 (3) (c) of Protocol II. Human Rights Watch interview with Francisco Caraballo, Itagüí Prison, Antioquia, July 3, 1996; and “Menor del EPL,” La Patria, April 19, 1996. 137 Translation by Human Rights Watch. Internal communication from Cali Public advocate, May 8, 1996, quoted in Public Advocate’s Office, “El Conflicto Armado en Colombia y los menores de edad,” Boletín No. 2, Santafé de Bogotá, p. 8. 138 Ibid. 139 Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, San José del Guaviare, Guaviare, May 5, 1997. 140 Public Advocate’s Office, “El Conflicto Armado en Colombia y los menores de edad,” Boletín No. 2, p. 11. 141 Ibid. 142 Ibid., p. 27 143 Ibid., p. 30. 144 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with former hostage, November 8, 1996 and January 5, 1997. 145 Public Advocate’s Office, “El Conflicto Armado en Colombia y los menores de edad,” Boletín No. 2, pp. 12-13. 146 Ibid., p. 13. 147 The AUC denied that it had recruited these children. Human Rights Watch interview with Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, Itagüí Prison, Medellín, Antioquia, December 8, 1997; Paul Bolaño Saurith, “Dramática liberación de los cinco menores de edad,” El Tiempo, January 31, 1998; “Menores liberados por el ELN no tienen relación con las ACU,” El Tiempo, February 6, 1998; and “Liberación de menores es un caso puntual, dice el Eln,” El Tiempo, November 19, 1997. 148 Article 13 of Law 48 establishes an eighteen- to twenty-four month obligatory term for regular recruits; a twelve-month term for child soldiers; a twelve-month term for child police officers; and a twelve- to eighteen-month term for soldiers from farm families. 149 Articles 13, 14, and 15 of Law 418; and SU-200/97, April 17, 1997. 150 Public Advocate’s Office, “Niñas, niños, y jóvenes en el conflicto armado,” June, 1998. 151 “Menores de edad incorporados al servicio militar como soldados bachilleres,” Colombian Armed Forces, May 8, 1998. 152 Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Julio Moreno Llanos, Human Rights Office, National Police, Santafé de Bogotá, May 8, 1997; and National Police, 1995: un año de realizaciones (Santafé de Bogotá: Policía Nacional, 1995), pp 32-33, 79. 153 All fifteen were released unharmed on July 3, 1998. Serge Kovaleski, “Young Women Held Hostage In Colombia, Rebel Action Touches A Nerve in Weary Nation,” Washington Post, July 1, 1998. 154 Public Advocate’s Office, “El Conflicto Armado en Colombia y los menores de edad,” p. 14. 155 CREDHOS Urgent Action, May 7, 1997. 156 Human Rights Watch interviews with former child guerrillas, Barrancabermeja, Santander, June 28, 1996. 157 We documented the failure of Colombia’s juvenile facilities to adequately treat and care for juveniles in Human Rights Watch, Generation Under Fire: Children and Political Violence in Colombia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994), pp. 50-57. 158 Public Advocate’s Office, “El Conflicto Armado en Colombia y los menores de edad,” p. 14. 159 Ibid., p. 16. 160 Ibid., pp. 15-16. 161 Human Rights Watch interview with social worker, Barrancabermeja, Santander, April 8, 1995. 162 Public Advocate’s Office, “Niñas, niños, y jóvenes en el conflicto armado,” June, 1998. 163 “‘Paras’ dicen no a menores en el conflicto’,” El Tiempo, November 24, 1997.

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