According to an official statute of the FARC-EP, "entry into the FARC-EP is by personal, voluntary, and conscious decision between the ages of fifteen and thirty."70
The FARC-EP first committed itself publicly to this policy in 1999, when Olara Otunnu, the U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, met with Raúl Reyes, a member of the FARC-EP's General Secretariat and responsible for the group's international outreach. After Otunnu expressed concern about under-age recruitment, Reyes reportedly promised that the FARC-EP would halt the recruitment of children younger than fifteen.71 However, our findings clearly indicate that guerrillas continue to recruit children under the age of fifteen.72
Guerrillas have given various explanations over the years for the obvious discrepancy between rule and practice. According to one spokesperson, the children themselves often beg insistently to be allowed to join, or their mothers take them to the guerrillas in desperation because they cannot feed them.73 Another argued that underage recruits are accepted more readily in cold, mountainous regions of the country where conditions are harsher and new recruits harder to gain than they are in the plains or jungle regions, where it is supposedly easier to adapt to guerrilla life.74
The vast majority of former child combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch were recruited before reaching the stated minimum age of fifteen. Of the seventy-two former members of the FARC-EP who specified the age at which they joined the group, fifty-seven said that they had joined between the ages of seven and fourteen. Their recruitment could scarcely be explained as an error due to the difficulty of distinguishing visually between a fifteen and a fourteen-year-old. According to our interviews, the typical age at recruitment was between eleven and thirteen.
The issue of the child recruitment was discussed during peace talks between the government and the FARC-EP. In April 2000, Commander Jorge Briceño Suárez, known as "Mono Jojoy," gave a speech in San Vicente del Caguán in which he acknowledged that the FARC-EP had committed "errors," including the use of child combatants under age fifteen.75 Briceño is the commander of the FARC-EP's powerful Southern Block and a member of the group's General Secretariat, its ruling body. According to residents who heard the speech, Briceño promised that the FARC-EP would take steps to remedy matters, such as returning under-age guerrillas to their families.76 In a later interview with the Spanish television station TVE, Briceño said that "underage recruiting had to stop."77
After these statements, San Vicente residents reported that guerrillas returned a number of child combatants to their families, including a girl of twelve.78
In June 2000, Commander Carlos Antonio Lozada said in an interview with Human Rights Watch that the FARC-EP had set fifteen as its minimum recruitment age in 1996. He admitted, however, that "until recently, this norm was not enforced." But, as of April 2000, after what he described as Briceño's firm statements on the matter, he said it had become "a norm of obligatory force" and would, in the future, be followed.79
It was not followed, however. Not long after Briceño's speech and Lozada's interview with Human Rights Watch, the FARC-EP dispatched the "Arturo Ruiz" column, a mobile unit of over 360 combatants, from the Zone to the department of Norte de Santander. Many members of this column were children. In the closing months of 2000, the army's Fifth Brigade and its Rapid Reaction Force engaged this unit in a series of bloody skirmishes known as Operation Berlin,
Sixteen-year-old Ramón told Human Rights Watch that Briceño personally briefed him and other members of the unit before they embarked on their perilous journey. "He said that we were going to Norte de Santander, that we were going to fight and that we should be prepared for anything."80
All five of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch who were captured in the operation had joined the FARC-EP before they were thirteen, and they were far from unusual. Indeed, one of the consequences of Operation Berlin was to draw attention to the issue of child combatants in Colombia. Because such large numbers of children were captured or killed during the fighting, Operation Berlin alerted government authorities and international humanitarian agencies to the increasing deployment of child combatants in the country's armed conflict.81
The international concern provoked by images of child victims prompted guerrillas to hand over sixty-two child recruits from the municipality of La Uribe to government representatives and UNICEF in February 2001. A month later, Commander Briceño was reported to have promised once again to prohibit field commanders in the future from taking in recruits younger than fifteen.82
To date, however, there has been no sign of any decline in child recruitment by the FARC-EP. The Colombian army reported that out of 327 combatants who reportedly deserted guerrilla ranks in 2001, a third were children between the ages of ten and seventeen. Of the 986 reported deserters in the first ten months of 2002, 42 percent were children. And of these, seventy-four were under the age of fifteen.83
The Colombian press reports sporadically on forced recruitment by FARC-EP guerrillas in contested zones across the country. In July 2002, the 39th and 44th fronts of the FARC-EP were reported to have forcibly recruited at least thirty-five children in Puerto Alvira, Meta, before driving hundreds of townspeople from their homes. "The kids were scared, and no one said a thing. I recognized Marquitos among them, a town kid who helped to load the boats, but he kept his eyes down," an eyewitness told reporters.84 In October 2002, the mayor of Juradó, Chocó, a town near the border with Panama, reported the recruitment of at least eight children by the FARC-EP's 27th front.85
The UC-ELN's "code of war" states that "minors under sixteen years of age shall not be members of the permanent armed force. They may take part in revolutionary activities other than hostilities."86
In recent years, UC-ELN commanders have been willing to discuss humanitarian law issues with government authorities within the context of proposals for wider peace negotiations. In July 1996, commanders Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, then in prison in Itagüí, Medellín, issued a statement about child combatants in reply to a letter from the director of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, Adelina Covo de Guerrero.87 In the statement, they cited the UC-ELN code mentioned above, which also includes a rule prohibiting the execution of minors, pregnant women, or young mothers. Kidnapping of children under sixteen for political or economic motives would not be permitted under any circumstances, the document stated.88
Galán and Torres rationalized child recruitment as a response to indiscriminate attacks by the state and paramilitary forces on the civilian population, including children. As they put it:
Since civilian families who sympathize with or merely live in close proximity to guerrilla forces are subject to physical attack, intimidation, and harassment by government or paramilitary forces, they contended, it is inevitable that children may seek or be sent by their parents to the guerrillas for their own physical protection. The guerrillas may feel obliged to provide such protection--to "keep our camps open" in the words of Galán and Torres.90
Indiscriminate violence directed at civilians by the state, or by forces allied to it, probably facilitates the recruitment of children by guerrilla forces. Nevertheless, this argument should not be used to justify the practice of child recruitment. Once recruited and armed, children become combatants and targets in a military confrontation. The violence to which they are exposed multiplies, both from the enemy and from their own side should their loyalty be questioned. Moreover, the commanders' arguments are less altruistic than they at first appear; the guerrillas obviously benefit from the presence of young and malleable recruits in their camps.
In January 1998, the UC-ELN organized the public release of four children between fifteen and seventeen years of age who, it claimed, had given information to the army that led to a joint military-paramilitary offensive around the municipality of San Diego, Cesar. (Six civilians were killed and seven kidnapped in the attack.) During the long negotiations for the children's release, the UC-ELN expressed its willingness to discuss the demobilization of children and the prohibition of their future recruitment as an important initiative in a future humanitarian agreement with the Colombian government.91
Six months later, two UC-ELN commanders signed the "Heaven's Gate" agreement in the city of Mainz, Germany, in which the UC-ELN resolved not to recruit children under sixteen into its ranks, and in the future to raise the minimum age to eighteen. A deadly UC-ELN oil pipeline attack soon afterwards, in October 1998, poisoned the negotiating atmosphere, preventing implementation of the accord and the proposed holding of a peace convention between the UC-ELN, the government, and civil society leaders.92
In April 2000, government and UC-ELN leaders announced the creation of an "encounter zone" comprising three municipalities in southern Bolívar and northeastern Antioquia as a venue for the proposed convention. However, paramilitary and local opposition prevented the holding of talks inside Colombia. Although peace discussions have continued, the UC-ELN has so far been unwilling to introduce humanitarian reforms unilaterally without concessions from the government.
Article 9 of the AUC's statute sets out the organization's entry requirements. Aspirants must be over eighteen years of age, of good repute, and have no record of "undesirable or antisocial conduct."93 Actual recruitment bears little relation to these requirements, however.94 In cities across Colombia, for example, paramilitary groups have recruited youngsters hardened by years of service for the drug cartels as their shock troops in a push to drive out the guerrilla militias from the slums that guerrillas previously controlled.95
Although the paramilitaries have failed to respect their own commitment to prohibiting the recruitment of children, the proportion of children in their ranks is generally thought to be lower than either the FARC-EP or the UC-ELN. This may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that the AUC pays its troops and for this reason has found it less difficult to gain adult recruits.
Of thirteen former paramilitary children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in June 2002, all but three were recruited after May 1998, when the AUC's Second National Conference approved the eighteen-year minimum age limit. The youngest two recruits joined at ages seven and eight; seven more joined before they were fifteen, and only four at age fifteen or more. Most of the children said that they had trained with other children. Some said that the majority of fellow-trainees were adults, but a few claimed that there were "lots" of children.
Bernardo, a former paramilitary, threw some light on AUC efforts to implement the 1998 statute. At seventeen, Bernardo is illiterate and suffers from memory loss he said is due to blows to the head he received when briefly captured by the FARC-EP. But he could clearly remember the introduction of a paramilitary policy, subsequently suspended, to demobilize child recruits:
69E-mail message from a Protestant pastor, Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo, August 27, 2002. For his safety, we are not naming him.
70Comisión Internacional, "Comunicado de las FARC-EP," June 8, 1999.
71"Special Representative of the Secretary-General For Children and Armed Conflict concludes Humanitarian Mission to Colombia," United Nations press release, June 8, 1999.
72The Public Advocate, the ICBF, UNICEF, and respected human rights and humanitarian NGOs in Colombia have all provided abundant evidence that the FARC-EP still fails to observe its own stated minimum age for recruitment.
73Dick Emanualson, "Interview with Olga, comandante guerrillera de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP)," Rebelión, October 14, 1996.
74Unnamed source, cited in UNICEF-Colombia, "El Dolor Oculto de la Infancia," Santafé de Bogotá, May 1999.
75Human Rights Watch interviews, San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, June 2-3, 2000.
76Ibid.; "Volvimos a ser niños," Cambio, February 1, 2001.
77Andres Cala, "Trading in rifles for schoolbooks," The Gazette [Montreal], March 8, 2001.
78Human Rights Watch, "Beyond Negotiation: International Humanitarian Law and its Application to the Conduct of the FARC-EP," p. 8.
80Human Rights Watch interview, Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
81Michael Easterbrook, "What are we fighting for? Colombia's civil war puts children on the front lines" [online], http://www.salon.com (retrieved on January 13, 2001).
82Karl Penhaul, "Colombia's force of child warriors," Boston Globe, March 4, 2001.
83"Entre 6,000 y 8,000 menores integran grupos armados ilegales (Ejército)," El Colombiano, October 31, 2002.
84"Crisis humanitaria en el sur de Colombia por luchas entre FARC-EP y autodefensas," El Colombiano, August 2, 2002.
85"Denuncian bloqueos y reclutamientos en Chocó," El Colombiano, October 9, 2002.
86In earlier documents, the minimum age was stated as fifteen. "Los Niños en el Conflicto Político Social y Armado en Colombia," unsigned document sent by Galán and Torres to ICBF Director Adelina Covo in July 1996, provided by the ICBF to Human Rights Watch in June, 2002.
87As in the FARC-EP, UC-ELN commanders like Galán and Torres use "war names" to identify themselves.
88"Los Niños en el Conflicto Político Social y Armado en Colombia," unsigned document sent by Galán and Torres to ICBF Director Adelina Covo in July 1996, provided by the ICBF to Human Rights Watch in June, 2002.
91The attack and the children's release are described in Human Rights Watch, War without Quarter, pp. 214-15.
92On October 18, 1998, the UC-ELN militants bombed a pipeline near Machuca, Antioquia. According to official investigations, the resulting spilled oil and gases took six minutes to descend a slope, cross the Pocuné River, and reach the population on the opposite bank. There, many residents depended on open flames for light and cooking,. The mixture ignited, engulfing sixty-four dwellings and the sleeping families inside them. Seventy-three people, among them thirty-six children, ultimately perished. An additional sixty-four people were seriously wounded. Weeks after the spill, the UC-ELN admitted its responsibility via a press interview with Bautista, who claimed without providing evidence that the UC-ELN had investigated the case and "punished" those responsible. However, several months later, UC-ELN leader Antonio García claimed it was sufficient to simply "acknowledge" the error and insist that units be more careful. Human Rights Watch, World Report 1999 (New York: Human Rights Watch 1999) [online], http://www.hrw.org/wr2k/americas-03.htm (retrieved on May 1, 2003).
93"Estatuto de Constitución y Régimen Disciplinario," available on the AUC's website at http://colombia-libre.org/colombialibre/estatutos.asp (retrieved on December 6, 2002).
94The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in February 2002 that it had "received numerous complaints that the different guerrilla and paramilitary groups have continued to recruit children under fifteen years of age." Human Rights Watch interview, Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002; and Report of the United Nation High Commissioner on Human Rights on the human rights situation in Colombia, 168. Available at http://www.hchr.org.co/documentoseinformes/informes/altocomisionado/informe2002.html (retrieved on May 19, 2003).
95See Steven Ambrus, "Taking aim at the city," Newsweek, February 18, 2002, for a vivid account of paramilitary advances in Medellín and other cities.
96Human Rights Watch interview with "Bernardo," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.