Each of the irregular forces in the Colombian conflict kill, maim, and torture prisoners and target civilians for abduction and murder. Atrocities like these cannot be considered to be "excesses." They are not departures from normal behavior, but are an integral part of the strategy used by both sides to wage war over several decades. Within both guerrilla and paramilitary forces, everyday slang reflects this crude reality. Suspected enemy infiltrators are not killed, they are "attended to," "peeled," or "negotiated."
In all irregular forces, a combatant worthy of respect is a matón (killer). The children have a deadpan manner of talking about murder and cruelty. After they abandon home and village to join the armed struggle, violent death quickly becomes part of their daily lives. Adolfo, a gangly extrovert who joined the AUC when he was thirteen, chuckled in wonder as he described his first experience of killing:
They caught a guerrilla alive in combat, handed him over to me, and told me I had to kill him. "But how?" I asked the commander. "I don't know how to kill anybody." The guy was tied up and the commander gave me his shotgun, put my hands round the stock, and he put the barrel against the guy's head. Bang!272
More than a third of the former child combatants we interviewed (forty out of 112) said they had participated directly in out-of-combat killings. And of those who did not admit that they participated personally, over half volunteered information about killings by their own side or said that they knew about such killings. In many cases, they said they had witnessed them. Children from both
guerrillas and paramilitaries told Human Rights Watch that they had seen captives being tortured and mutilated by their own side before they were executed.
Children from both guerrillas and paramilitaries told Human Rights Watch that they had seen captives being tortured and mutilated by their own side before they were executed.
The one thing I did that was wrong and I see now was bad for me was to have killed people and to have abused the civilian population. Because in those guerrilla incursions, there was a lot of abuse. If the region was full of paracos [paramilitaries], we knew that most of the civilians were their collaborators and we mistreated them. To abuse a civilian who is unarmed, to hold a rifle or a revolver to their head to humiliate them and then do nothing to them is cruel, because one has the power and the other is powerless. A guerrilla, a paraco, or a soldier with a gun feels he can do anything if the other is disarmed.273
Ramón was not yet thirteen when he was ordered to execute an army sergeant accused of infiltrating the 43rd front of the FARC-EP:
I had never been in combat and didn't know what it was to kill someone. They held a war council and sentenced him to be shot. I was chosen to kill him. My first shot missed because I was so scared and my hand was trembling so much I couldn't keep the revolver still. Another guy grabbed my hand to steady it, a big guy, maybe nineteen years old. With the second shot, I hit him in the leg and he fell over. They told me to shoot again. The next shot hit him in the chest and another one here. In the night, I couldn't sleep I was so scared. I sensed that he was standing at my feet. I tried to eat and couldn't. When I spoke to my older brother, he said, "Relax! Things like that are normal in the guerrillas."274
Milton was thirteen when he got his first commission:
I killed two informers in Medellín. They were aged thirty-eight and forty-two. I wasn't afraid to kill them because I had already been in combat. Our collaborators had seen them talking to paramilitaries. I had their address, and went to their house. There were two of us, but I was the one who had to do the killing. It was a test for me. I was thirteen. It was the same year that I joined the FARC-EP. After doing it, I felt really big, like a real killer (matón). But sometimes when I thought about it, I felt sad and I wanted to cry. 275
FARC-EP children participate in capturing and executing combatants from the opposing side and suspected civilian collaborators or sympathizers. They also participate in ambushes in which civilians are the intended victims. Child combatants engage in these actions on the specific orders of their commanders. Both those who refuse to carry out a killing and those who are responsible for unauthorized killings are liable to be shot.
Both the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN say that they oppose violence directed at the civilian population and that they enforce discipline among their troops to minimize such attacks. For example, the FARC-EP considers "the murder of men and women from the civilian population, rape, and robbery" to be very serious offenses. For a killing to be authorized, a guerrilla investigation must first have established proof of the victim's "guilt." Both rebel groups distinguish such killings from the arbitrary and indiscriminate taking of civilian life. International humanitarian law permits no such distinction: the summary execution of any captured combatant or civilian is a grave violation of international law.
The FARC-EP regulations refer specifically to executions:
Commanders and combatants must take into account that executions can only be carried out for very grave crimes of the enemies of the people and with express authorization in each case by the higher levels of command in each organization. In every case, proof must be given and responsibility for decisions must be assumed collectively. The chiefs must leave written records documenting the evidence.276
Seventeen-year-old Jorge had a clear grasp of the issues involved:
Very often the principles [about treatment of the civilian population] are followed, but on other occasions specific orders are given to the guerrillas, which are regulated [by their commanders]. The other orders are general ones that must be observed. No one there is going to do anything that is not authorized.277
In our interviews with former child combatants, we found that few children questioned whether civilians known to be collaborating or sympathetic to the other side were legitimate targets. A former member of the FARC-EP's 14th front explained:
If the prisoners refuse to talk, they tie them up and send the militia to investigate what they have said. When the Zone ended, I had to guard some prisoners there. Most of them were paramilitary collaborators. They had sent a lot of information and with that information paramilitaries had killed lots of guerrillas. So the prisoners were killed. It wasn't hard to kill them. To let them go would have been worse.278
Other killings, however, trouble children greatly. After almost two years in the FARC-EP, Rodrigo tipped off some peasants who were about to drive into a guerrilla ambush. He managed to escape with them in their truck and later surrendered to the Colombian army:
I was in a commando group of six that was ordered to attack a patrol. There were four trucks with peasants on board. I was posted as a lookout. I had wanted to get out of the guerrilla force for some time, but we were moving around so much that I couldn't run because I thought that they would catch me and shoot me. When the trucks approached, I ran up to the first one and jumped aboard, warning the driver that there was a bomb. The truck accelerated and we escaped. Luckily, the bomb did not explode. I gave myself up to the army anti-narcotics battalion.279
Rodrigo had earlier participated in an execution of a deserter, but this troubled him much less than the planned murder of these peasants, who, he said, "owed nothing." Likewise, Alberto, an only child, was still haunted by his memory of shooting an elderly crack addict.280
Jorge participated in several shootings, but only one affected him deeply: the murder of a woman from his village who was reputed to cast spells on people:
They accused her of practicing witchcraft, of casting spells on people who she didn't like and stealing things from people in the neighborhood. So they gave the order that she be shot. It was in December 2001. That was the last execution I had to do. The first time I killed someone, I didn't feel that bad. The only time I felt bad was with this lady. The reason was that she lived very close to me and I had known her since I was very young. I felt bad because she and her family knew me.
She started to beg for mercy, and as the other guy who was in command of the mission was there with me, I said, "I've known you since I was young and I know what sort of person you are." And in that moment, he ordered me to shoot her. She was quiet then, and the other person with me, my comrade, stepped back a bit, and I fired with my rifle, not with my pistol, so as not to risk hitting him. That was the only execution I felt bad about. Also because it was a woman and all the others were men.281
The eyes and ears of the guerrillas in urban centers are the militias. Urban militias operate clandestinely, typically in civilian clothes, sometimes from their homes, sometimes from safe-houses. Unlike fully fledged and uniformed guerrilla combatants, who undergo extensive training in the camps, children told us that the militias receive a shorter period of training and visit the camps sporadically to receive orders, deliver supplies, and bring in captives for interrogation.
Operating in small commandos, their duties include tracking the movements of police and army troops, gathering intelligence on the paramilitaries and their collaborators and sympathizers, and recruitment. Militias collect "taxes" from drug-traffickers and businessmen, and carry out surprise attacks on police stations, ambushes, and kidnappings. They also carry out assassinations. Many of them, possibly a majority, are teenagers.
In recent years, FARC-EP and UC-ELN militias have waged vicious turf wars with paramilitary forces seeking to gain a toehold in urban centers in the southern departments that were traditional guerrilla strongholds, particularly Caquetá, Putumayo, and Guaviare. Paramilitaries have also made inroads in key cities in the departments of Arauca and Santander. In 2000, Barrancabermeja, Santander, had a homicide rate of 227 per 100,000, among the world's highest. Most of the killings were attributed to a turf war between paramilitaries and the guerrillas.282
Those caught by either side in this war of attrition are in grave peril. Guerrilla children captured by the paramilitaries face brutal torture. Several teenagers who had been in the militias told Human Rights Watch that they surrendered to the government after discovering that they were on paramilitary hit lists. But after doing so, they also feared reprisals from their own side, as deserters or suspected informers.
Others, like Wilmer, Rodolfo, and Jaime, members of a seven-person UC-ELN militia commando in a large urban center, were captured by the army. They told Human Rights Watch that they believed that they had been named by one of the two leaders of the commando, a man who had been captured and apparently interrogated under torture by paramilitaries. The man's burned body was later found. All three told Human Rights Watch that they had participated themselves in the killing of captured paramilitaries.283
Héctor, from the poor Buenos Aires sector of Medellín, joined the UC-ELN militia when he was fourteen. It had struggled to keep the AUC from entering the neighborhood. "Their graffiti were everywhere, up in the barrios in the hills. 'Self-Defense Groups are Here,'(Auto-Defensas Presentes) they said. The paracos made people get off the bus and killed them. We were not going to allow that, so we responded to prevent them getting into the neighborhood."284
Suspected paramilitaries were "investigated." If suspicions were confirmed, Héctor killed them. Silence was taken as an assumption of guilt:
First, we would investigate. For example, occasionally strangers would hang around the neighborhood. We would capture them and take them to a place where we could talk to them. We asked them what they were doing, etc, etc. We investigated thoroughly, really thoroughly. And if we found that they could
explain what they were doing, fine, we would let them go. But if we found that they were from one of the self-defense groups, we would kill them. If the guy refused to talk, we would know that he was an informer, that he was a member of an armed group. He was killed.285
“If the guy refused to talk, we would know that he was an informer, that he was a member of an armed group. He was killed.”
Peter was twelve when he joined the UC-ELN militia in Chocó. He gave a similar account:
They tie up suspicious strangers who hang around in those parts and have no papers or family. They investigate them, note their behavior and what they say. If they wander into one of those areas and don't have any one to back them, no family or acquaintances, if they can't prove their innocence, they are executed on the spot.286
Jenny, a part-indigenous girl who played with a doll throughout her interview, had been in the UC-ELN militia for only one month when she was ordered to kill a young man suspected of being an army informer. "I was supposed to bring him to an agreed spot and kill him myself. I had to think fast. I knew that I had to do something to escape the test. Luckily, it was Holy Week and the town was full of soldiers. I turned myself in."287
Seeing themselves as the self-appointed protectors of local residents, the militia also meted out summary street justice for petty thieves, pimps, drug peddlers, or persistent wife-beaters. Marijuana dealers were a particular target, said Andalecio:
They would sell marijuana around and bother people, and people would complain that they were scum, dissolute. So many children seeing marijuana get bad habits and that's no good. We told them that if they went on selling marijuana there . . . that they had better sell it elsewhere, in the center of Medellín, but not in the neighborhood. We would warn them three times and if they paid no attention, knowing that it was bad for the neighborhood, there was a solution, we would kill them . . . And when a husband beat his wife, fights between couples, well, we would talk to the brother, tell him not to hit his wife. "Look brother, if you really can't live together, split up, or do what you have to do, but we will not allow that." We always gave them three warnings.288
In the FARC-EP camps, children are sometimes made to watch the brutal torture of captured paramilitaries or suspected infiltrators, who may well be children themselves. This was how Humberto, who joined the FARC-EP when he was thirteen, described what he saw:
They summon you along with everyone else who is there and they torture [the captive] there. When a comrade deserts and steals a gun, they consider him an infiltrator. They hit him hard and insult him, and more so if its an
infiltrator, because he has to tell them what he knows and where he has been. They kick him, they hit him with their rifle butts, and sometimes they cut him. Or they dig needles or pins under his fingernails. I have seen it. And they chop off his fingers, they cut one off and if he refuses to talk, they chop off another. Above all with infiltrators. I didn't participate. I could hardly watch. 289
“And they chop off his fingers, they cut one off and if he refuses to talk, they chop off another. Above all with infiltrators. I didn't participate. I could hardly watch.”
Days after his arrival at a FARC-EP camp, twelve-year-old Darío was forced to learn how to torture an enemy prisoner. It is not uncommon, the children say, for raw recruits to be made to endure such gruesome ordeals to prove their toughness:
In my first combat, they captured eighteen AUC members. They tortured and killed all of them. First they tied them up and took them back to the camp. And the company commander called all of us recent arrivals who were still in training over to see how they killed. All of us who didn't know yet how to kill or torture to obtain information. They cut off their fingers, first they removed their nails, their nose, and they cut off the ears. They cut open their stomachs and removed their intestines with a knife, while they were still alive, and afterwards they shot them. And we watched, and some of the kids left because they got sick and were vomiting. The commander said that it was easy, that one day we would have to do it. It was ugly, terrible. For a long time after I thought of death. 290
Ómar was fifteen when he joined the 29th Front of the FARC-EP. He witnessed a similar scene on three occasions. He was uncomfortable talking about the experience:
They held seven paramilitaries for a day in the camp and they killed them all. The intelligence service officers did the interrogation. They specialize in that. They were all adults. I was there and I saw it. They chose a person to kill them. They beat them and chopped them with knives, used needles . . . they tortured them a lot. Those same people had to dig their own graves beforehand.291
Although no children said they had participated directly in these atrocities, many witnessed them directly and some were forced to watch.
If you join the paramilitaries, your first duty is to kill. They tell you, "Here, you are going to kill." From the very beginning, they teach you how to kill. I mean when you arrive at the camp, the first thing they do is kill a guy, and if you are a recruit they call you over to prick at him, to chop off his hands and arms.292
Paramilitary forces operating in some cases with the cooperation or tolerance of some army units have been responsible for many of the grave human rights abuses of the Colombian conflict.293 Inevitably, children are caught up in the abuses, both as victims and perpetrators.
"They told us that we were not to harm the civilian population," said Jónatan, a black teenager who fished the Magdalena River to feed himself before he joined the AUC. "They said that we had to search for the guerrillas. But anyone working for the guerrillas was involved as well. They had to be captured and killed."294
"After you have done it a few times, you lose your fear," said Cristián, a former paramilitary:
One day we were on patrol and we entered a school on the roadside while the children were studying and went right into the classroom. We already had a photo of a guy we were looking for, a teacher. We waited for the class to finish and he was left on his own. We questioned him, but he refused to answer. We looked in a cupboard and found some clothes, a radio, and a pistol. And since he refused to talk, we killed him. I was the one who did it. He was a guerrilla commander. Some local people had told us. We had a photo of him in uniform with a rifle. I was fifteen then.295
"It's easier the second time. You become indifferent," fifteen-year-old Leonel told Human Rights Watch:
I myself had to kill people when I was in the urbanos. I killed a young guerrilla, a kid who was fourteen years old, and a thirty-year-old woman. The paras had investigated them and knew what they were doing. When you're told to kill someone, they give you a photo of the person, their personal data, and their address. They give you a "folder" with all the necessary intelligence. The first time was in October 2001. Eight of us (five adults, me, and two other minors, aged sixteen and seventeen) went together to the guy's house. We grabbed the guy and tied him up. His family was crying. We put a pistol to his head to
make him talk. He sang. He informed on the woman, said she was an informer for the guerrillas, that she gave them information. After he talked, we killed him. We couldn't let him go because he knew us. I shot him myself. It was hard to do, but I did it for the money and also to gain the respect of the commanders. I was paid a bonus of 500,000 pesos [U.S. $167].296
“I shot him myself. It was hard to do, but I did it for the money and also to gain the respect of the commanders.”
Laidy, who joined paramilitaries as a fourteen-year-old girl, said that she was the only female and the only child in a special unit devoted to assassinations. "We received 500,000 pesos [U.S. $167] a month every six months. They paid us a bonus of 200,000 to 300,000 pesos [U.S. $67 to U.S. $100] to kill someone. I was with the specials for sixteen months." She explained:
I killed a policeman a year after I joined. He was the chief of police in my town. He didn't allow his men to be bought by the paras. They showed me who he was and gave me three days. I called him as if to seduce him. I was with another paramilitary girl of fourteen. We took a paramilitary taxi; many taxi-drivers support us. The man said: why are you going to kill me? I told him that he had problems with us. I shot him in the head with a .38 revolver. It wasn't hard for me because I had already been in combat and had already killed guerrillas.297
Children are witnesses, and even participants, in gruesome atrocities committed by paramilitaries against their guerrilla captives. Óscar, who joined the AUC at age twelve, said that deep resentment and fear fueled this cruelty:
I saw several commanders torture captured guerrillas. It can last a whole day. Anything is possible: they burn them, cut their bodies up with knives or with chainsaws. I saw that happen once. Some of the commanders are full of resentment toward guerrillas, and are capable of anything. Especially those who've lost family members to the guerrillas.298
Picking at the casing of a camera battery lying on the table, seventeen-year-old Adolfo described the details of torture:
How do they torture? They pull out their nails, they throw hydrochloric acid in their face and body, and they burn them with fire.299 For example, I make a fire and I leave a rod in it to heat up. When it's red hot, I hold the rod to his chest and put it out in his chest, just like that . . . [Adolfo laughed nervously.] I often used to play with a revolver. Once there was a man next to me with a .38. I was in uniform and I put the rifle here by my side and took the revolver from his belt and removed all the shells but one. And I held it to [the prisoner's] head and pulled the trigger continuously until I got to the last chamber, and I shot him in the head. The bullet hit him here and removed a piece [of his skull], it wasn't intended to kill him. I wasn't supposed to kill him. I could burn him with acid but I couldn't kill him, that's the orders they give you. Go and shoot him but don't kill him, shoot him in the leg, in the arm, but you don't do it with a rifle, because that would blow him in half. . . . I was really scared at first. The first test they give you is to kill a man, a guerrilla. Bring me so and so, they say, so that he can learn. And they bring you and tell you to kill the man. If you don't kill him, they will kill you. They used to bring guerrillas captured in Caquetá to the camp, and tie them up by the hands and legs and a man would come up with a chainsaw, and slice them piece by piece. Everybody could watch. I must have seen it ten times. It's part of the training.300
272Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.
273Human Rights Watch interview with "Jorge," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
274Human Rights Watch interview with "Ramón," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
275Human Rights Watch interview with "Milton," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.
276From a document entitled "Beligerancia" published by the FARC-EP on its website http://www.FARC-EP.org/ (retrieved on August 11, 2002). This document gives details of the FARC-EP's internal regulations, and is described as having been written to support the organization's claims to be treated as a belligerent under international law in the Colombian armed conflict.
277Human Rights Watch interview with "Jorge," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
278Human Rights Watch interview with "Pedro," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.
279Human Rights Watch interview with "Rodrigo," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.
280Human Rights Watch interview with "Alberto," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.
281Human Rights Watch interview with "Jorge," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
282Human Rights Watch, The Sixth Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia, p. 51-61.
283Human Rights Watch interviews with former child combatants, Bogotá, May 31 and June 1; and Medellín, June 5, 2002.
284Human Rights Watch interview with "Héctor," Medellín, June 6, 2002.
286Human Rights Watch interview with "Peter," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
287Human Rights Watch interview with "Jenny," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.
288Human Rights Watch interview with "Andalecio," Medellín, June 6, 2002.
289Human Rights Watch interview with "Humberto," Bogotá, June 2, 2002
290Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002
291Human Rights Watch interview with "Ómar," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002
292Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.
293Human Rights Watch, World Report 2003 (New York: Human Rights Watch 2003) [online], http://www.hrw.org/wr2k3/americas4.html (retrieved on May 21, 2003).
294Human Rights Watch interview with "Jónatan," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.
295Human Rights Watch interview with "Cristin," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.
296Human Rights Watch interview with "Leonel," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.
297Human Rights Watch interview with "Laidy," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.
298Human Rights Watch interview with "Óscar," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
299Household hydrochloric acid (ácido muriático) can cause severe burns.
300Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.