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All of the irregular armed groups in the Colombian conflict impose harsh discipline. They frequently kill children for acts of disobedience and infractions of rules that are considered very serious.

Disciplinary procedures vary, however. The FARC-EP and the UC-ELN hold "war councils," procedures in which each member of the front votes on whether the accused should be put to death or given a lesser punishment. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that guerrillas can guarantee the fair trials required by international humanitarian law. Indeed, neither group makes any serious attempt to argue that their trials satisfy these conditions. In fact, these are summary executions dressed up as judicial procedures and are abhorrent violations of international humanitarian law.209

The paramilitaries hold no such hearings. Decisions on punishments appear to be taken solely by commanders in consultation with their superiors.

Discipline in FARC-EP Camps

The whole front participates in the war councils. The person accused is given someone to defend them. You are allowed to speak up for your friends. But it can be dangerous. They had a saying in the camp: "the regulations have no friends."210

In FARC-EP camps, children receive instruction in guerrilla regulations as part of their basic training. Violating the rules can mean the application of a graded scale of punishment. Ultimately, children may face an ignominious execution at the hands of a comrade no older than they.

Discipline in the FARC-EP is particularly strict, suggesting strongly that the abuses committed by guerrillas, including children, are the result of specific orders that have been carried out and are not the product of misconduct. According to the children we interviewed, regulations affected almost every aspect of their daily lives, including the most intimate feelings. A commander's permission is required to have sex with a fellow guerrilla or to establish a more permanent relationship. Doing these things without authorization is a punishable offense.

The FARC-EP prohibits unruly conduct by its fighters especially when they are among the civilian population. Robbery, extortion, threats, sexual abuse, and the irresponsible use of firearms can be capital offenses. Drugs are strictly forbidden. The children's accounts reinforce the impression that the FARC-EP is a highly vertical, organized, and disciplined military force.

Child combatants are obliged to perform arduous physical chores as punishment for disobedience or minor infractions of discipline. They dig garbage pits, latrines, or trenches for days on end; clear forest; carry piles of wood; and perform kitchen duties.

Ómar, from the FARC-EP's 26th front in Meta, had problems keeping awake on guard duty. Caught asleep the first time, he was made to dig a twenty-meter urinal. The second time he had to dig a fifty-meter-long trench. The third time, he was given twenty days of kitchen chores. Had this happened when the company was on the move or in combat, he would have faced a war council and a firing squad, he told Human Rights Watch.211

On occasion, a war council may order the confiscation of a combatant's weapon. The victim will be sent into battle without one, if lucky, under covering fire. Or he will be ordered to recover a weapon from the enemy. Ómar told Human Rights Watch that his friend, Esteban, was hauled up before his assembled comrades for laziness. Esteban had repeatedly avoided kitchen duties. Of his fellow fighters, Ómar recalled, 157 voted that he be killed and 143 voted that he be spared. Because the vote was close, Esteban escaped a firing squad. Instead, his gun was confiscated and not returned to him until he had captured a weapon from the enemy. Ómar told us that Esteban was killed the following day in a skirmish with the army, although he had managed to recover a gun before the battle.212

Children are often required to do penance by making a public confession about their failings in front of the commanders and the assembled company. Others report being chained to trees for weeks, not allowed to speak or be spoken to.

War Councils

The most serious infractions of the FARC-EP military code are considered capital offenses, punishable by summary execution regardless of the age of the offender. Being caught asleep on guard duty (considered serious if the company is on the march or in combat at the time, and very serious if it leads to the death of fellow combatants); being caught while trying to run away or being absent without leave (execution is almost certain if deserters take a gun with them); surrender or loss of a weapon; being a police or army infiltrator or informer; using a weapon against a fellow combatant; firing rounds in populated areas; robbery, extortion, or violence against the civilian population; repeated drug or alcohol abuse; and rape.

Child combatants accused of these offenses are tried by a "war council," in which all the members of the company or front in question, other children included, have to participate. Children told us that the accused may name a fellow-combatant to defend them, while another is selected to lead the "prosecution." The procedure itself is conducted by several other members of the company. The defense pleads for clemency by asking for the accused combatant's service record to be considered. All present, bar the accused, may raise their hand for a chance to speak. Then a decision is made by a show of hands whether the accused should be executed or his or her life spared and a lesser punishment imposed.

Children facing a war council are usually bound with a nylon cord. The cord is used to tie the hands behind the back around a tree or a pole, and connected to another cord knotted at the back of the neck. If the child moves his arms, the cord round the windpipe tightens, cutting off air.

Seventeen-year-old Ramiro, from the FARC-EP's 10th front, told Human Rights Watch he was kept tied up for fifteen days after he made an unsuccessful bid to escape the camp. The cords were removed every four days to allow him to wash. Ramiro told Human Rights Watch that he thought he escaped a war council because he had been wounded in the shoulder by a bomb blast. Finally, the front's commander gave him ten days to dig a hundred meter trench, despite his injuries, threatening him with a war council if he failed to meet the target. He completed the task in eight days.213

Alberto, a fragile child from Caquetá, joined the 25th front of the FARC-EP in January 2001, when he was twelve. During his first combat, he lost his revolver in a hurried retreat after his unit ran out of ammunition. As a punishment, he was hung by his wrists from a tree all night. He told Human Rights Watch that his wrists bled and became infected.214

Several children told us that they were frightened to defend friends brought before a war council, lest they be considered suspect, guilty by association, or have to explain the reasons for their vote of innocence or guilt. Marcos, the gun expert, told us how three adolescent girls--aged fourteen, sixteen, and nineteen--defended a girl accused of being a police infiltrator. The trio insisted that the accused be spared to respect her rights as a woman (the war council was held on International Women's Day). The war council voted that she be killed. The girls who had defended her were selected to pull the trigger.215

Once the war council has passed a death sentence, the company commander communicates the decision to his or her superior officers. The superior officers may order the penalty to be lifted or altered. If authorization is given, the commander gives orders for the execution to proceed, handpicking a few members of the company to carry it out. This review mechanism, although not used in every case, indicates that in most cases executions are carried out with express authorization of top commanders.

"We had lots of war councils," recalled Ángela, the girlfriend of a FARC-EP commander:

I was judged by one in December 1999. It happened because my boyfriend and I had terrible problems. I was forced to have an abortion and it made me angry; it made us fight. I cut him and he hit me. They were afraid we'd kill each other. Because he was a commander, our council was made up of the five other

“[T]hey punished us by chaining us to trees for a month and depriving my boyfriend of his rank.”

commanders. The vote was three to two to let us live. It was terrifying. I was sure that they were going to kill us. But they punished us by chaining us to trees for a month and depriving my boyfriend of his rank. They'd unchain us only to eat and sleep. It was the silent treatment. We couldn't talk to anyone and they couldn't talk to us.216

A bright eighteen-year-old, Carolina got pregnant by a forty-year-old commander. She wanted the baby, so she deserted and headed home to her mother's house, but she had a miscarriage on the way. The FARC-EP captured her and brought her back to the camp.

They put me before a war council. I was chained up for a month. I got off with a punishment. As my defender, I chose the person who liked me least. It lasted about half a day. The accuser said I should be killed because I had committed so many crimes: abandoning guard duty, abandoning my weapon, stealing from the movement (my clothes), treason, endangering the movement (because they were preparing an attack). I didn't care. I was ready to die because I was so sick of it all. The punishments I received were to dig a fifty-meter trench (a meter deep and a meter wide ­ it took about three months) and to carry wood. Also, I had to do a self-criticism for about two hours as well as learn the regulations by heart and give a summary of them.217

War councils in the FARC-EP camps occur frequently, and the children report that most of them result in a killing. Ómar said he participated in fifteen war councils during his eighteen months with the FARC-EP, and there were ten executions.218 Sixteen-year-old Rodrigo, who was in the FARC-EP's 32nd front for two years, said that there were ten war councils in that period. Six resulted in executions.219 Marta, aged seventeen, thought that there had been fifty councils of war in the two-and-a-half years she spent in the FARC-EP. All but about twelve resulted in executions.220

On the basis of these accounts, some fifty-four people were murdered by the FARC-EP in less than three years, in three fronts alone.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to confirm this death toll on the basis of reports of summary executions published by governmental or non-governmental sources. The FARC-EP does not return the bodies of executed combatants, including children, to their families. The execution squad usually buries the body in an unmarked grave outside the camp perimeter so that their death is never officially recorded. Only rarely are bodies found.221

According to Carolina, "Often the mother of the person comes to us to try to find them. We never tell her that her son or daughter is dead. We say they're somewhere else."222

Nor are the children to be found on lists of people "disappeared" after detention by the security forces or paramilitaries. Most parents probably assume that their children were killed in combat.

Our knowledge of in-camp executions comes almost entirely from child guerrilla deserters. For legal purposes, the child victims simply vanish. Of all the atrocities of the Colombian conflict, these are possibly the least known and the least documented, because of the secrecy in which they are shrouded.

Other Executions

In the FARC-EP, children are called on to execute captured paramilitaries as well as fellow cadres who are accused of breaking rules. The experience is searing and shapes children long after the actual event.223 Ángela, who joined the guerrillas at twelve, had a story that became disturbingly familiar as Human Rights Watch conducted its interviews:

I had a friend, Juanita, who got into trouble for sleeping around. We had been friends in civilian life and we shared a tent together. The commander said that it didn't matter that she was my friend. She had committed an error and had to be killed. I closed my eyes and fired the gun, but I didn't hit her. So I shot again. The grave was right nearby. I had to bury her and put dirt on top of her. The commander said, "You did very well. Even though you started to cry, you did well. You'll have to do this again many more times, and you'll have to learn not to cry."224

It is not unusual for children to be ordered to participate in executions, including the executions of other child combatants. Some FARC-EP children say that executioners are chosen only from seasoned combatants: "They pick those that have more confidence, so that they don't get upset" said one boy. 225

Another insisted that age was not the important factor. "Even if someone is small, if he is capable and follows the rules, he will be accepted to do it," one child told us.226Other children reported that all children were liable to be selected to carry out an execution as a test of valor at the beginning of their training.

Executions are carried out at some distance from the camp, after two or more members of the group of executioners have dug a grave. If the victim is not suspected of defection, spying, or infiltration, death is usually by pistol or revolver shot to the head. Suspected infiltrators or informers, however, are reportedly mutilated with knives or machetes while still alive.

Several of our young interviewees said guerrillas disemboweled the dead before burial. A social worker who works with former child combatants told us that this is to prevent the ground from rising and later sinking, a sign that could betray the presence of guerrillas to their enemies.227

Fifteen of the seventy-nine interviewees who had belonged to the FARC-EP admitted that they had participated in executions of fellow combatants following war councils. Most of them insisted that had they refused to comply with the order, they would themselves have been executed for disobedience.

Elizabeth, who got a command after one year, was chosen to kill her best friend because she had voted for him not to be killed:

I had been in the FARC for nine months when they ordered me to kill a friend, Edison. He was my best friend. He had killed someone by accident. I didn't have a choice. You have to do it because it's an order. There had been a war council and I had voted no. The commander told me, "Since you voted no, you will be the one to kill him." Almost everyone else had voted in favor of killing him. Only four of us had voted no.228

Mauricio had been in the FARC-EP for four years and had won a command without killing anybody. Then he was sent to find and bring back a deserter who had been spotted in town by the militia:

We went to his house and picked up him, then brought him back to the camp. There, they held a war council. He had a defender, but everyone knew what the verdict was going to be. It was automatic. There was no real possibility that he would escape shooting. His crimes were "theft from the movement and desertion,"

“He closed his eyes, and I shot him in the head. I had never executed anyone before, but this time I had to do it.”

the most serious crimes of all. In the war council, no one voted to save him. After the council, we went and dug his grave. Then we brought him to the side of the grave. He closed his eyes, and I shot him in the head. I had never executed anyone before, but this time I had to do it. If you don't do it, they'll kill you.229

Raúl, a nervous sixteen-year-old from Vista Hermosa, Meta, refused to execute a deserter, ignoring jeers from the older boys. He was fortunate. The officer in charge of the company called his superior to complain about Raúl, but the commander supported him. "We had a good relationship. I used to call him uncle and he would give me a hug and ask how I was doing," he told Human Rights Watch.230

Discipline in the UC-ELN

The UC-ELN also holds war councils and executes combatants who break its rules, but it would appear with less frequency than the FARC-EP. Our data on this point is not conclusive, however. The number of interviewees with experience of UC-ELN camps (as opposed to its urban militias) was too small to draw firm conclusions.

Seventeen-year-old William, who spent three years in the UC-ELN's "Carlos Alirio Buitrago" front, reported that he never participated in a war council, and that only one combatant was executed during this period.231 Sixteen-year-old Héctor claimed that the UC-ELN had a more flexible attitude to deserters than the FARC-EP. Three fugitives from his UC-ELN company were captured. After an investigation established that they had returned quietly to civilian occupations and had no links with the security forces or the paramilitaries, they were set free, Héctor claimed.232

Deserters who go over to the enemy, on the other hand, are shot. Héctor mentioned the case of a deserter who had been captured at a roadblock:

We knew who he was because he had deserted from the ELN. He was a guerrilla who had gone over to the paracos. Because of him, several comrades were killed. We knew that he was responsible. The thing about the guerrilla is that they are not brutes, they explore the facts before killing someone. So we captured him and killed him, myself and two other comrades. They had ordered us to find the deserter and if we found that he had done something bad against us, to kill him.233

Discipline in the AUC

The organization has tough discipline. There are great commanders, but there are others who love to kill. Those guys are real assassins. If one of them catches you asleep on guard duty, he'll cut your throat there and then so that you never wake up.234

In contrast to practice in the guerrillas, the AUC allows commanders to make decisions without the pretence of a group consultation, and sometime without even any consultation with their superiors.

Article 13 of the AUC's internal statutes, adopted in May 1998, envisages demotion and expulsion as the most serious sanctions that can be applied for violations of the statutes. Serious transgressions are supposedly dealt with by a Regional Disciplinary Tribunal (Tribunal Disciplinario Regional), composed of the commander of the block (Bloque), the commander of the front, the offender's immediate superior in the unit to which he or she belongs, and a representative of the AUC's regional political structure (articles 14 and 15).235

In practice, there is no evidence to suggest that this statute is actually applied. As in the guerrilla groups, serious breaches of discipline are punished not by expulsion, but often by summary execution. The children we interviewed told us that no formal hearings are held before the maximum sanction is applied.

As in the guerrilla forces, deserters are hunted down and killed. Bernardo was lucky to narrowly miss a brutal death after he escaped from the ACCU. Visibly nervous in our interview, Bernardo told Human Rights Watch that he had hidden for a year with two other deserters. His former paramilitary comrades were on their trail.

One of the three was captured by paramilitaries in the house where they had been hiding. His body was found a few days later with his throat cut and a nylon cord around his neck. Bernardo turned himself over to the police. He could not say what had happened to the other fugitive, but suspected that he had been killed too. "They go after you until they find you," he told Human Rights Watch. "The only way of getting out is to be captured by the army or to turn yourself in."236

Cristián, who joined the ACCU when he was twelve, told Human Rights Watch that the ACCU sent unruly or undisciplined kids back home by helicopter with some money in their pocket. He agreed, however, that anyone who left without permission would be pursued and very possibly killed.237

None of our former paramilitary interviewees could confirm the existence of a disciplinary tribunal in which they had rights to present a defense or have legal representation. Nor did there appear to be any equivalent of the guerrilla war councils. In contrast, consultations on how to deal with transgressors appeared to be made, when they were made at all, by unit commanders in radio or mobile phone communications with superior officers.

Adolfo told Human Rights Watch that children who break minor rules, like consuming alcohol without permission, are tied by their hands and neck with nylon cord and secured to a pole. The procedure appears to be identical to that routinely used by the FARC-EP. They are held like this for five or six days or even longer, being untied only to wash, to eat, and to perform bodily functions.

"Often they tie them up like that, and then when the time comes to untie and release them, they just kill them," said Adolfo.238

Bernardo said that as a punishment for drug abuse he was held in a cell and doused with sweetened water so that the insects would bite him.239

A tall, aggressive boy, Adolfo spent three and a half years in the Bolívar Central Block. Once, when his unit was on the move, he saw a commander approach a boy who had fallen asleep on guard duty:

One day we were in a place called Brisas, we were on patrol and we arrived at a site and we set up camp there. We pitched the tents, it was about seven in the evening that we got there, we did an inspection of the area, checked out the ground and the surrounding territory for mines. And one of the comrades, Genaro, was on night guard duty, it was the second watch, and at about two in the morning he fell asleep. The commander went over there and came back to where we were and said "I need two or three of you to come over here with me," and he called me and two others, and we went over to where Genaro was sleeping. And without warning the commander pulled out a knife and, shuiiii, cut Genaro's throat, right in front of our eyes.

Adolfo described how the decision to execute a combatant is made, and the minimal amount of reflection that may be involved:

There is no court. The commander of the counter-guerrilla takes the decision. The chief picks up the radio and calls the commander of the block back at the base. "I have a cowboy here who fell asleep. Should I waste him or cut his pay?" But there are some who kill the guy first and then make the call. "Hello . . . I had to kill such and such a person because he fell asleep," and then they just cut him up and bury him.

Adolfo finished by explaining how executions were carried out:

People are rarely shot. It's a privilege to kill someone by shooting them. Usually they cut off their head. They make a hole in the ground, small but deep. The person is tied with their hands behind the back. They make them put their head over the edge of the hole and put their boot here on top [demonstrating], grab their head and cut their throat with a knife."240

209Common article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions concerning non-international armed conflicts prohibits "[t]he passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples." Article 6 of Protocol II sets out these requirements in detail. To qualify as fair trials, they must guarantee due process rights, including ensuring that the accused is informed of the charge against him or her as well as the trial procedure; allowing the accused a proper defense, including competent counsel; charging defendants based only on individual responsibility for a crime, not group responsibility; affording the accused the presumption of innocence; and avoiding in absentia trials. Moreover, Protocol II requires a clear appeals process. If these guarantees are not assured, no sentence may be carried out.

210Human Rights Watch interview with "Vicente," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

211Human Rights Watch interview with "Ómar," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.


213Human Rights Watch interview with "Ramiro," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

214Human Rights Watch interview with "Alberto," Bogotá, May 30, 2002

215Human Rights Watch interview with "Marcos," Bogotá, June 2, 2002

216Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela,," Bogotá, June 2, 2002

217Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

218Human Rights Watch interview with "Ómar," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

219Human Rights Watch interview with "Rodrigo," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

220Human Rights Watch interview with "Marta," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

221In January, 2002, the police of Huila province found the bodies of three children in an unmarked grave near Suaza, some 350 kilometers south-east of Bogotá. According to the police, the bodies belonged to three child combatants known as "Old Man," "Elder," and "Colombia." According to one press account, after deserting, the children hid with the help of some peasants, but were discovered by rebels, who shot them. "Guerrilleros asesinan a niños desertores," El Universal (Caracas), January 28, 2002.

222Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

223Sibylla Brodzinsky, "A government program aims to take former guerrilla fighters and give them back their childhood," St. Petersburg Times, August 7, 2002.

224Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," June 2, 2002.

225Human Rights Watch interview, Medellín, June 5, 2002

226Human Rights Watch interview with "Jorge," Medellín, June 5, 2002

227Human Rights Watch e-mail correspondence with an ICBF social worker, November 9, 2002.

228Human Rights Watch interview with "Elizabeth," Bogotá, June 3, 2002

229Human Rights Watch interview with "Mauricio," Bogotá, June 3, 2002

230Human Rights Watch interview with "Raúl," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

231The combatant was his elder brother, Henry, aged twenty. Henry was executed for falling asleep on guard duty. His body was returned to his family in Granada. According to William, the army entered the camp when Henry should have been on guard. Although he had served five years in the ranks and had an unblemished record, Henry was blamed for the death of eight guerrillas who were killed in the ensuing firefight. No war council was held. Human Rights Watch interview with "William," Medellín, June 6, 2002.

232Human Rights Watch interview with "Héctor," Medellín, June 6, 2002.


234Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

235 See (retrieved on August 8, 2002).

236Human Rights Watch interview with "Bernardo," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

237The ACCU, established by Carlos Castaño in 1994, was one of the first paramilitary groups now represented in the umbrella group AUC.

238Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

239Human Rights Watch interview with "Bernardo," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

240Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

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September 2003