The attrition rate among Colombia's child combatants is high. At least 40 percent of the 112 children we interviewed gave themselves up to the police or army. Many of those who deserted had been looking for opportunities to escape for months, if not years. Among the others, there were some children, especially paramilitaries, who did not want to leave. Only a handful said that they wanted to return.
But very few of the children are able to go back to their families. Those who deserted from the guerrilla or the paramilitaries are at risk of being re-captured and killed, and, by returning home, of placing their families at risk also. Some children do not want to return home, and in some cases the parents are themselves with the guerrillas or paramilitaries. Most children give themselves up for personal protection, even though some told us they were afraid that they would be beaten or ill-treated.
Those who are captured are normally handed over by the army or the police to juvenile judges. Many of the children we spoke with were initially locked up in detention centers for juvenile offenders. They were eventually transferred to a reception center run by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF).
For example, Elías and Jhon Freddy were held for three and four months respectively in the Ibagué correctional facility in the department of Tolima; William was in La Pola in Medellín for three months; others were admitted to the ICBF program after shorter periods in detention; and a few were admitted almost immediately. Juvenile correctional facilities do not provide adequate security for former combatants, who are at risk of reprisals either from their adversaries or their former comrades. Putting them in jail with urban toughs and drug users is also inappropriate given their special circumstances.
It is the juvenile judge who decides to whom the child is referred after capture.320 The criteria judges apply vary widely across the country, legal experts say.321 According to ICBF statistics, about two-thirds of the children who desert or are captured pass through a juvenile court as young offenders. The remaining one third are treated as children at risk and are located in a specialized ICBF institution for former child combatants.322
In practice, nonetheless, most children in both categories end up in the care of the ICBF. Still, no ICBF or public advocate official was able to give Human Rights Watch a clear idea of how many former child combatants were being held in correctional facilities for children or where these children were held, making it impossible for us to visit any. Despite recent attention to the question of former child combatants, there remains some concern that judges in remote areas where there is no local ICBF office continue to send such children to prison, a problem that government officials acknowledged.323
The welfare of these children is a worry, since apart from the security risk of being in prison, they lack access to psychological counseling and other support available in the ICBF centers. The public advocate and ICBF have urged judges to put the welfare and interests of the children before any other consideration, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.324
In April 2002, the ICBF sent judges across the country a booklet establishing guidelines on former combatants to be followed by the armed forces, police, judges, and family welfare officials. The booklet asserts that all children who have left armed groups "have a right to specialized protection from the state, regardless of the circumstances in which they left them." As noted below, until recently children had different legal rights, depending on whether they deserted or were captured, or what irregular armed group they belonged to. The point stressed in the guidelines is that whatever the child's legal situation, none should be held in police or army custody after their surrender or capture, or in detention centers for young offenders. All must be referred at once to the ICBF and admitted immediately into its program.325
Most of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they had been well treated by the security forces after capture. Many former child combatants said this without hesitation.
There were important exceptions, however. Some children said that they had been beaten, kicked, threatened, and insulted. In several cases, children told Human Rights Watch that senior officers intervened to stop their subordinates from beating children.326
An example was sixteen-year-old Efrain, a member of the FARC-EP militia from Putumayo. Efrain was captured with a fellow militia member in January 2002.
Rodolfo, Wilmer, and Jaime, all age seventeen and members of an UC-ELN urban militia commando in Arauca, were arrested by the police acting on a tip-off while they were asleep at Wilmer's home in March 2002. All three told Human Rights Watch that they were beaten and kicked after their arrest. Rodolfo told Human Rights Watch that a policeman kicked him and punched him in the stomach, then hit him over the head with a handcuff and a leather belt.328 He said he was held overnight with his wrists chained to a bar of the window so that he could not lie down. Jaime said that a policeman told them: "I wish to God that a cylinder bomb would fall on you so that you suffer like you have made others suffer."329
The three were taken from the police station to a juvenile detention center in the city of Arauca, where they were detained for a month with young offenders held for ordinary criminal offenses. From Arauca, they were brought to the ICBF in Bogotá.330
Troops allegedly beat and ill-treated children captured during Operation
From other accounts of Operation Berlin, it appears that senior commanders halted the ill-treatment of guerrilla prisoners, both adults and children. Ramón, also age twelve when he joined guerrillas, told Human Rights Watch that the arrival of the ICRC probably saved his life. Soldiers had threatened to burn him alive.332 An official of the public advocate's office, who was directly involved in the handover of some sixty-five FARC-EP child deserters in Suratá, Santander, described the conduct of the Fifth Brigade as "impeccable and respectful."333
319Human Rights Watch interview with "Édgar," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
320Human Rights Watch interview with Jairo González, Public Advocate's Office, Medellín, Antioquia, June 4, 2002.
321Congressional debate convened by Sen. Rafael Orduz Medina in May 2002. See Rafael Orduz, "Niños, niñas y adolescentes víctimas del conflicto armado: una prioridad para el Estado," in Martha Nubia Bello y Sandra Ruiz Cevallos (eds.) Conflicto Armado, Niñez y Juventud: una Perspectiva Psicosocial, (Santafé de Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2002), p. 133; Human Rights Watch interview with Mario Suescún, Public Advocate's Office, June 12, 2002.
322Guerreros sin Sombra, pp. 174-175.
323Human Rights Watch interview with Mario Suescún, Public Advocate's Office, June 12, 2002.
324"In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration." Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 3 (1).
325Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, Organización Internacional para la Migración, Save the Children U.K., Defensoría del Pueblo, "Ruta Jurídica y Fundamentos Normativos de los Niños, Niñas y Jóvenes Desvinculados del Conflicto Armado," Bogotá, April, 2002.
326In the most complete study published so far on Colombian child combatants, based on a sample of 119 children, the Attorney General' Office and the ICBF concluded that "a product of the new policy of human rights promotion followed by the Army and the Police is that complaints of ill-treatment, although representative, were infrequent, although this should be treated with caution since minors do not necessarily report abuses for fear of possible reprisals." Guerreros Sin Sombra, p. 179.
327Human Rights Watch interview with "Efrain," Bogotá, May 31 2002.
328Human Rights Watch interview with "Rodolfo," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.
329Human Rights Watch interview with "Jaime," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
330Human Rights Watch interview with "Rodolfo," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.
331Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002
332Human Rights Watch interview with "Ramón," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
333"Niñez y conflicto armado: vacíos legales sin resolver," El Tiempo, September 30, 2002.