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The use of children and adolescents in armed conflicts places their lives, well-being, and education at great risk. They are forced to use high-caliber weapons. They are required to lay explosives, to kill other children who are considered "traitors" or change their minds, and to participate in kidnappings, surveillance, and bomb intelligence work. In some cases, children as young as eight are used for these perilous tasks. These illegal, perverse practices subject boys, girls, and youths to the inherent risks of combat, to sexual abuse, and to other forms of abusive, brutal, and humiliating treatment. They are drawn into a culture of violence, and their rights to education and to ordinary participation in society are curtailed.181

Training in the Guerrilla Forces

Child recruits in the guerrilla forces receive the same military training as adults. No special limited duties are reserved for children in recognition of their age.

Eleven or twelve-year-old recruits are often issued a pistol or revolver immediately on their arrival at the camp. During training, they are taught how to handle and use different types of automatic assault rifles, including AK-47s, Galils and FALs, and a variety of handguns, such as .38 revolvers and 9 mm pistols. Children, generally, seem to be treated as equals, sharing food and duties on an equal footing with older combatants.

Child recruits in the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN are also instructed in the use of hand grenades and mortars. They learn to assemble and fire homemade explosive devices, including gas cylinder bombs, and to make and lay anti-personnel mines, known in Colombia as "foot-breakers" (quiebrapatas). Former child paramilitaries told us they had laid foot-breaker mines, but the paramilitaries do not use gas cylinder bombs.

For most trainees the day begins at dawn with physical exercises and calisthenics. In the FARC-EP, training courses include what the group calls "closed order" and "open order" skills. The first include in-camp duties, such as defense, weapons training, arms assembly and cleaning, look-out duties, parade ground routines, formation, presenting arms, etc. The second involve in-combat training, including survival techniques and tactics for mounting ambushes and surprise attacks.

"My training was four-and-a-half months," said Ramiro, who joined the FARC-EP's 10th front at fifteen. "I learned how to use a compass, how to attack a police post, how to carry out an ambush, and the handling of weapons. By the end I was using an AK-47, a Galil, an R-15, mortars, pineapple grenades, M-26 grenades, and tatucos (multiple grenade launchers)."182

Some children enjoyed the tough physical demands placed on them. "I felt happy," said Jon Freddy, who had raised his hand eagerly in a FARC-EP recruiting meeting in San José, Guaviare. "My training started four days after I arrived at the camp. We learned to march, to lie down and crawl, we jogged day and night with our all our kit, we learned to throw grenades and to shoot. The AK-47 was light. They showed how to fire it without being hurt by the recoil. I wasn't scared."

Jon Freddy's military career ended when he was captured barely alive in Operation Berlin. "I was ill, as thin as a rake, and my blood was black," he told Human Rights Watch.183

Urban militias receive a shorter period of military training, dealing with intelligence gathering, infiltration, kidnappings, and the capture of suspected collaborators. Militias also receive training in the fabrication and use of home-made bombs.

In both the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN, compulsory training session talks include instruction on guerrilla rules and regulations and discipline; treatment of the civilian population; and political indoctrination. There are classes on Marxism and pep talks on revolutionary heroes and martyrs, both Colombian and international. Colombian history is portrayed as a struggle between the "people" and the oligarchy, the military, "Yankee imperialism," and Plan Colombia.184 As seventeen-year-old Marta described it:

They teach us history: the history of Che Guevara or Jacobo Arenas or Marxism-Leninism every day from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. We read. There isn't any math or science taught, only politics, weaponry, and the FARC's rules. Before we go out to fight, there is a talk: "We are going out to defend Colombia, so that equality can come--to help the poor--so that the rich don't take from the poor."185

Political education also features prominently in UC-ELN training courses. As fifteen-year-old Peter recalled his training:

They taught me how the government was oppressing and exploiting the peasants and confusing them with lies. They want to do like they did in Cuba, like in Cuba there is equality, there are no rich and poor, and everyone is equal. And they talked about politics, about Plan Colombia, which was a trap to provide weapons to finish off the guerrillas.186

Jorge, a serious seventeen-year-old, remembered the focus on revolutionary ethics:

They taught us how to obtain the support of the civilian population and the right conduct, like not to go into the population and take their animals and behave badly and trick them with words. That's forbidden. There are rules for all of that. A guerrilla cannot give orders to the civilian population.187

Children with the right aptitude may receive specialized training in marksmanship, explosives, the handling of cylinder bombs, use of heavy machine guns, or special operations, including undercover missions and assassinations. Marcos, a former mechanic who deserted from a FARC-EP camp in a pick-up truck, trained as a sniper:

They could see that I was able, that I was active and alert in doing things. I started to like guns and I was good at taking them apart and putting them together and even repairing them. In car mechanics, you learn to do that sort of thing. So I spent six months training and then went to work undercover. What they trained me to do was to shoot at 500, 600, or 700 meters with a rifle with a telescopic sight. Not everyone had access to a weapon like that. It impressed me and I began to like it. But it stopped being fun when I had to kill people.188

Paramilitary Training

The training undergone by young recruits to the paramilitaries is physically demanding and often extremely brutal. Several former child paramilitaries told us how captured guerrillas were sometimes killed with machetes in front of them during training sessions, and how they themselves were ordered to participate in the killings.

Adolfo, a four-year veteran of the AUC, told us that Colombian army personnel were in the camps during training sessions and helped put the recruits through their paces:

We were trained by mercenaries, war vets. We knew they were military, guys that came in from the battalions: colonels, generals, and captains. They used to hang out in the camp, talking, drinking. They'd drive up in Toyota Prados, Land Cruisers, and Mazdas. The training was three months. There was a track, a training course with obstacles, bars, the famous spider's web [webbing over which recruits had to climb]. The guys that come in are professional soldiers, who bring information about the guerrillas. And they participate, they are there watching, they go onto the track and hit you with sticks and clubs while you're running. Sometimes there are accidents and people get killed. You regret you joined in those three months, because it's tough as a son-of-a-bitch. You only rest when they give you the uniform and the gun and you're ready for the counter-guerrilla.189

Five former paramilitary children based in camps in different parts of the country told us they had been ordered to kill captives in front of the other recruits during their training. Óscar, an Afro-Colombian, recalled:

They bring the people they catch, guerrillas and robbers, to the training course. My squad had to kill three people. After the first one was killed, the commander told me that the next day I'd have to do the killing. I was stunned and appalled. I had to do it publicly, in front of the whole company, fifty

“They'd kill three or four people each day in the course. Different squads would take turns, would have to do it on different days.”

people. I had to shoot him in the head. I was trembling. Afterwards, I couldn't eat. I'd see the person's blood. For weeks, I had a hard time sleeping. . . . They'd kill three or four people each day in the course. Different squads would take turns, would have to do it on different days. Some of the victims cried and screamed. The commanders told us we had to learn how to kill.190

Fabio had previously been in the FARC-EP and was sent to infiltrate the AUC:

During the paramilitary training course, I killed someone. It was a friend who couldn't manage the course. It was a test. They passed me a machete to cut him up while he was alive. He was tied up. He begged me not to. The commander was watching. He said, "Go on, do it, do it!" All the kids were watching. Finally, I did it. I cut his throat and his feet and arms. I felt very sad and I cried.191

Bernardo, who joined paramilitaries as a seven-year-old street child, told Human Rights Watch of a similar experience.

They give you a gun and you have to kill the best friend you have. They do it to see if they can trust you. If you don't kill him, your friend will be ordered to kill you. I had to do it because otherwise I would have been killed. That's why I got out. I couldn't stand it any longer.

Asked for the name of his friend, Bernardo remained silent.192

Fourteen-year-old Uriel, who joined the AUC at age eight, told an equally harrowing story:

They killed six people during the training: four friends of mine and two civilians who were spies for the FARC-EP. They tied them up with their hands behind their back and beat them with a stick. They cried for help and begged for forgiveness. Then the commanders shot them in front of everyone, to convince people never to be spies. I saw the whole thing. I couldn't say anything because I knew they'd kill me, but I wanted to leave. They killed them in such a cruel way.193

The torture and murder of captives has been a hallmark of paramilitary tactics for many years. In the cases described above, children were terrorized into participating in these practices.194 They learn that readiness to carry out orders to commit atrocious crimes gains favor and prestige in the ranks, a perverse form of conditioning. "I shot him myself," confessed fifteen-year-old former AUC member Leonel of the murder of a guerrilla suspect. "It was hard to do, but I did it for the money and also to gain the respect of the commanders."195

At thirteen, Laidy, a paramilitary, shot a policeman in the head. "I felt happy afterwards. I wanted to please the commanders. Because if you say no, they'll kill you."196

Gas Cylinder Bombs

Gas cylinder bombs are regularly used by both the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN in assaults on military installations and police stations. They have great destructive power, but are notoriously inaccurate. They often miss their target and strike civilian homes and shops as well as churches, health centers, and municipal offices, causing avoidable civilian casualties.197

FARC-EP and UC-ELN boys told Human Rights Watch that they were trained in the fabrication and use of homemade gas cylinder bombs when they were between thirteen and fifteen years of age. According to the children's descriptions, the gas has first to be removed from an ordinary domestic propane cylinder. The top of the empty cylinder is sawn off while the bottom is lined with bags and packed with dynamite. The cylinder is used as a launch-tube for a smaller cylinder filled with explosives and shrapnel. The explosive in the tube is detonated by fuse, and launches the projectile. Typically, the tube is placed on the bed of a pickup truck positioned near the area that guerrillas intend to attack. The range of the missile was said by one child to be around eighty meters. The weapons were capable of destroying buildings entirely, spreading shrapnel over a wide area, he said. One child made a crude drawing of the weapon.198

Former UC-ELN militiaman Jaime explained:

We had lessons in the use of explosives, and they gave us a manual on how to use them. Any type of cylinder can be used for the bombs, there are ones of 20 kilos, 45 kilos, and really big ones. We make the shrapnel from chains, iron, and nails and we put in anfo [ammonium nitrate and fuel oil] explosive. The biggest can wipe out a whole block. . . . Their accuracy depends on who is using them. The explosives experts know how to handle them. In Tame [Arauca], we fired a forty-five kilo bomb at a police station. It went over the roof and landed three houses away. Several civilians were killed. We were told off, but we were not punished.199

Human Rights Watch has previously condemned the gas cylinder bombs as indiscriminate weapons, the use of which violates the fundamental humanitarian law principle that requires that military targets be distinguished from civilian objects. On May 8, 2002, Human Rights Watch wrote to Commander Marulanda, urging him to halt the use of gas cylinder bombs because of their indiscriminate nature.200 Commander Marulanda did not reply.


Colombia is the only country in the Americas in which anti-personnel mines are still being laid. Child recruits in both the guerrilla and the paramilitary forces are trained to assemble and install these lethal devices. They include booby traps or landmines buried in the ground and activated by pressure, known as foot-breakers (quiebrapatas). Colombia's National Planning Department estimated that in 2002, there were at least 100,000 foot-breaker mines in Colombia.201

Landmines are in use by all parties in the Colombian conflict, and their use is believed to be increasing. According to the Colombian Ministry of Defense, between January and October of 2002, 141 members of the security forces were killed by landmines, five times more than died in 2001.202

UNICEF reported a comparable increase for civilian victims: the number rose by more than 100 percent, with 170 people dying in 2002. Adult victims of anti-personnel mines commonly suffer mutilation and loss of legs or arms. But children, because of their smaller stature, more often lose their lives or suffer catastrophic injury. Currently, 422 municipalities in thirty Colombian departments are affected by landmines.203

Most of the antipersonnel devices used by irregular armed groups in Colombia are made from cheap and easily available materials like PVC tubing, soda bottles, batteries, and wires. Uriel, fourteen, told Human Rights Watch that he had been taught by the AUC to plant booby-trap mines, and had done so about forty times. It normally took him two or three days to sow a minefield. On one occasion, he said, two of his companions were killed when mines accidentally exploded.204

Héctor, seventeen, did the same thing in the FARC-EP. It took him, on average, half an hour to lay a mine.205 Dagoberto, seven of whose seventeen years were spent in the FARC-EP, told Human Rights Watch that his unit had a mine-detector. "We also had Claymores. Some mines we made by hand; we put them in soda bottles. We made maps of where the mines were."206 Betty, fifteen, said her unit laid mines, but she never did. "It's dangerous. People lost their legs."207

On April 6, 2001, Víctor, a boy of sixteen, was severely injured when a landmine he was assembling on a hillside close to a UC-ELN camp exploded in his hands. He was fifteen at the time, and had been in the guerrillas almost two years. The blast took off the little finger and fourth finger of his left hand, and a piece of shrapnel lodged in his right eye. Dressed in civilian clothes, guerrillas took him to a private clinic in Bucaramanga, where doctors removed the shrapnel. They were unable to save his eye. When interviewed by Human Rights Watch, in June 2002, Víctor was in an ICBF home waiting for a prosthesis for his hand.208

181Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1999, Chapter 6, Recommendation for eradicating the recruitment of children and their participation in armed conflicts, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106 Doc. 6, April 13, 1999 [online], (retrieved on June 9, 2003).

182Human Rights Watch interview with "Ramiro," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002

183Human Rights Watch interview with "Jon Freddy," Bogotá, June 3, 2002

184Plan Colombia was the first large increase of U.S. military aid to Colombia in 1999, meant to bolster the fight against narcotics trafficking.

185Arenas was an early leader of the FARC-EP. Human Rights Watch interview with "Marta," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

186Human Rights Watch interview with "Peter," Bogotá, June 2, 2002

187Human Rights Watch interview with "Jorge," Medellín, June 5, 2002

188Human Rights Watch interview with "Marcos," Bogotá, June 2, 2002

189Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002

190Human Rights Watch interview with "Óscar," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

191Human Rights Watch interview with "Humberto," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

192Human Rights Watch interview with "Bernardo," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

193Human Rights Watch interview with "Uriel," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

194In December 2002, the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo interviewed a child recently demobilized from the AUC. "A wooden rifle and a piece of a corpse are the first pieces of kit the kids receive in the AUC training camps," the newspaper reported. "The first is for everyone; the second only for those who have never killed any one in their lives. 'They gave me a man's hand so that I would get used to the smell of death. We had to carry it in our backpack for days until it rotted,' Pedro recalled." "Las autodefensas de Colombia entregaron a trece menores de edad en Santander," El Tiempo¸ December 14, 2002.

195Human Rights Watch interview with "Leonel," Bogotá, June 1, 2002

196Human Rights Watch interview with "Laidy," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

197The paramilitary forces do not use gas cylinder bombs. For more on their use see Human Rights Watch, Letter to Commander Manuel Marulanda, FARC-EP, May 8, 2002. The letter is available online at

198Human Rights Watch interviews with former child combatants, Bogotá, May 31, June 1, June 3; and Medellín, June 6.

199Human Rights Watch interview with "Jaime," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

200The letter highlighted an attack that occurred on May 2, 2002, in Bojayá, Chocó, when a gas cylinder bomb fired by the FARC-EP struck a church, killing at least 117 civilians, including at least forty-eight children, who had taken refuge there. Letter to Commander Manuel Marulanda, FARC-EP, May 8, 2002.

201Caracol radio broadcast, "Cien mil minas quiebrapatas están sembradas en Colombia," March 6, 2003 [online], (retrieved on March 6, 2002).

202"Campo minado," Semana, December 9, 2002.

203 UNICEF-Colombia, Newsletter, November 2002 [online], (retrieved on May 7, 2003).

204Human Rights Watch interview with "Uriel," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

205Human Rights Watch interview with "Héctor," Bogotá, June 3, 2002

206Claymores are manually activated landmines. Human Rights Watch interview with "Dagoberto," Medellín, May 31, 2002

207Human Rights Watch interview with "Betty," Bogotá, May 30, 2002

208Human Rights Watch interview with "Victor," Bogotá, June 10, 2002

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September 2003