<<previous  | index  |  next>>


My father was always fighting with my mother and with us, too. That's why I went off with the guerrillas, to get away from the fighting. It was mainly because I was fed up at home. I was studying and they didn't want to pay for my studies. It was Escalante, the deputy commander of the front, who invited me. "We'll pay you, and everything," he told me. It was in one of those meetings they held in all the communities in the area.97

[The paramilitaries] have guys who do the recruiting, guys who come up and talk to you, like they say, "I just want to know that you can kill because we need some people to take back with us, and you'll earn such and such an amount." So you say yes, OK, to the guy and the guy gives you the money up front and tells you that he'll be back for you on such and such a day, or tomorrow at such an such an hour. You have to be there. If not, they'll kill you for sure.98

Most Colombian child combatants join the guerrillas or the paramilitary forces of their own accord. They are not forced at gunpoint, nor are their families coerced or physically threatened. Of our group of 112 interviewees, only thirteen told us they had been physically forced to join an armed group.99

Still, it is difficult to assert confidently that the others made a free decision. Rather, it appears molded by a lack of other opportunities.100

Most of the children are from a desperately poor background, lacking any chance of an education, personal advancement, or status. Most stopped going to class well before completing elementary school. Many were abandoned by their parents or farmed out to relatives better able to support them. Many come from unstable unions and are victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Of those who worked before they joined up, most had only the most menial, poorly-paid jobs, and some were employed in the processing of cocaine, which apart from being illegal is dangerous.101

Every child has a somewhat different story for why he or she left home and joined the guerrillas or paramilitaries. There are, however, common denominators. In nearly all of the children's accounts, poverty, deprivation, underemployment, a truncated schooling, lack of affection and family support, parental ill-treatment, and insecurity intermingle as "push" factors. "Pull factors" include promises of money (usually broken in the case of the guerrillas), thoughts of an easier life, a thirst for adventure, the desire for a gun and a uniform, and simple curiosity.

Joining the Guerrillas

Many young children who join the guerrillas leave a broken or unhappy home behind. In some cases, they are victims of violence and sexual abuse. Osvaldo, fourteen, had never been to school and was illiterate. His mother put him in the care of an aunt and her husband, who he said whipped him with electric cords. He was twelve when he left home in the company of a FARC-EP militia member.102

Many children abandon home without a word or a message to parents or kin. Diego left his parents when he was nine and went to work on a coffee farm. Lonely and insecure, he followed a friend into the FARC-EP:

Both of my parents used to beat me. My father drank a lot and when he was drunk he'd beat me with a stick. I was very small and was paid only 4,000 pesos [U.S. $1.50] a day on the coffee farm, but it was enough to live on. The FARC-EP used to come by the farm sometimes. I had a friend who joined them. Then he helped me join. I was sick of working at the farm.103

Peter, from the department of Chocó, joined the FARC-EP's "Aurelio Rodríguez" front when he was seven. He never knew his father, and shrugged off questions about him:

“I thought that if I left home, my mother and my brothers would be fewer and would eat better.”

They say he was killed, but I never saw him. I hardly saw my mother, either. She did not have enough to feed me. I lived in the street and in homes. I was with my uncle and the FARC would go a lot to his house. He knew everyone, but he wasn't in any armed group. I went hungry most of the time. I thought that if I left home, my mother and my brothers would be fewer and would eat better.104

Betty lived with her grandparents. She never knew her parents. When she was thirteen, her grandmother died. Betty went to live with an aunt on a plot of land in the department of Caquetá.

The guerrillas used to come around a lot. They came to buy milk, chickens, and bananas. I left when I was thirteen and joined the 24th front of the FARC-EP. They brought me to their camp and gave me everything. I went with them because I was really sad and unhappy. They were like my family.105

Humberto, a fragile seventeen-year-old with a treble voice, spent two years in the FARC-EP's 42nd front. He deserted when his uncle was transferred to the Zone and he was refused permission to accompany him.

I had an uncle who had been some time in the FARC. He would visit us at home and it was he who invited me, and I agreed. I was fed up at home. Before he left it was my uncle who helped me with my school. When he went, no one gave me any help. My father wasn't there because my parents had separated. I missed my uncle. He had helped me a lot. I left so that I could be with him.106

In many remote or recently populated areas, the army, the police, welfare, and education officials have only a tenuous presence. By contrast, the guerrillas or paramilitaries may be well-known and respected. "Roncesvalle doesn't have any police, its full of the FARC-EP," said Saúl, who had worked at a Tolima cattle ranch before he joined the guerrillas. "They walk down the street in their uniforms. Seeing them so much gave me the idea of joining."107

Jorge, a serious youth and to this day an admirer of the FARC, was dazzled:

They move all around the countryside, and you see them in good spirits these people, with their guns and their uniforms. You get infected with the same spirit. That's what happened to me. I had some friends among the guerrillas who invited me to join. I didn't have a lot of contact with them, but they told me that the life was good, that there was plenty of food, clothing was provided, you wanted for nothing, so I got excited and off I went. It was my decision.108

Guns, powerful vehicles, and walkie-talkies are symbols of power. Many of the boys and girls considered guns to be "bacano" (cool), and conversed about the merits of different weapons with the same casual familiarity that other children reserve for music or soccer. "I liked guns. I knew about them, it was easy [to get access to them]," said Pedro, who also volunteered that he liked war films. "I had a pistol that a friend from the FARC-EP had given me and he let me use his AK-47. It was because of the paracos [paramilitaries], lots turned up at people's homes, and it was better to deal with them there than run away."109

The withdrawal of government forces from the Zone during the aborted talks with the FARC-EP clearly facilitated the recruitment of children, since the guerrillas were able to operate openly in the towns. Severo, from Caquetá, told us he had hankered after a life with the guerrillas since he was small:

They were holding meetings all over town. Some were for recruitment, others were mainly to stop people getting drunk and fighting, to get the people back to work and to control the fights and get rid of the thieves. So that people could trust one another again, because there were people robbing civilians, stealing livestock. I met with the deputy commander and he invited me to join.110

Many children seek out the guerrillas, but the guerrillas also come looking for them. The urban militias, sometimes children themselves, do much of the recruiting. The FARC-EP trains promising youngsters especially for this task. Many new recruits enlist after specially convened public meetings. Others join after responding to casual contacts on the street corner or in soda fountains. Subtle pressure is applied.

Carolina, a confident eighteen-year-old from Putumayo, was trained as a recruiter by the 49th front:

I was placed in a three-month political formation course. We learned how to "educate the masses" and to recruit more kids. They chose pretty girls and handsome boys to do recruiting, because the kids would fancy them. We used to lie to potential recruits. We'd say that we'd pay them and that life was good. We'd announce a meeting in a school and people would turn up. Often, we'd have thirty to fifty people. I would give the welcome speech and there would be lots of other speeches. We'd talk a lot about the paracos [paramilitaries] because people were scared of them. We'd tell them they had to let us know if any strangers arrived, to keep us informed. We also trained peasants how to defend themselves. We gave them weapons and they did shooting practice.

At the end of a meeting, people would join up. Lots of kids, even as young as ten. Most were fourteen or fifteen. The commanders prefer minors because they learn better and are healthier. The ideal recruit is about thirteen, because then they can get a full political education.111

Once contact was established with a potential recruit, pressures would follow. "In Arauca, you can't be neutral. You are either for the army or for us," Marilín, an intelligent girl who joined the FARC-EP when she was twelve, told us. Like Carolina, Marilín was trained as a recruiter:

In Arauca, lots of towns belong to the FARC-EP. I'd enter wearing my uniform. We'd hold a big meeting and I'd give them a talk. We'd tell them to watch out for people, to look out for strangers and to tell us about them or capture them. I'd tell them to join us. If they didn't want to, we'd have to investigate why they didn't want to be involved. 112

At age seventeen, Joseph was already a veteran of the FARC-EP. He joined when he was nine, quickly rose to be a militia chief, and later spent six years as a guerrilla. At age thirteen, he had a hundred fighters under his command:

My job in the militia was to go out and tell people about the meetings. There were six of us. Sometimes fifteen to twenty people would turn up. If they had children, they didn't have to join us, but they had to organize themselves in our support. There was lots of pressure on them. I attended three or four of these meetings. In each one of them, we had people join up: usually fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen-year-olds.113

Ramiro, then fifteen and from the city of Barrancabermeja, was recruited in a bar. His father, whom he had scarcely seen, had recently been sentenced to death and executed by the FARC-EP. His relations with his mother soured. In comparison with his troubled existence, life in the guerrillas seemed a welcome escape:

We went into a bar there in Aguachica and ordered a beer and a man came in and started to talk to us: OK, where are you from? He asked us if we were paramilitaries. And we said, no, we've nothing to do with them. And he started to talk about the guerrillas, that they were great, that they paid you, they

“And all I had to do was carry a rifle, mount guard duty, and help them on the road, nothing else. And I let myself be persuaded and went with them.”

paid your family, the whole thing. I was fed up with going up and down from one place to another, with my mom, then with my uncles. So I let myself be convinced. They gave you clothes, anything you wanted. He said they were going to pay me 400,000 a month [approximately $135]. And all I had to do was carry a rifle, mount guard duty, and help them on the road, nothing else. And I let myself be persuaded and went with them.114

Neither the FARC-EP nor the UC-ELN paid wages to the children we interviewed. Guerrillas covered the expenses of militia members when they were on missions for which money was needed for food or supplies. According to the UC-ELN's military commander, Antonio García:

In the urban field, there are members whose budget must be covered because they have to pay expenses like rent, etc. They are very busy in their political activities so we pay their expenses. They have a budget that allows them to perform their activities, but we do not consider it a salary. Our policy is to provide a subsidy to support the families of those who have not got a regular job and are l00 percent involved with the ELN. The rest of the families, except in special circumstances, do not receive economic support.115

Yet during recruitment meetings, guerrillas often promised salaries. Several former FARC-EP child combatants told us they had joined in order to earn money or send money home to their families. Nonetheless, they received no money beyond their upkeep.

"I was fed up. I don't know why, but something crazy took hold of me," said Giovanni, who lived in Bogotá with his mother and father. "I was working on the buses, but I wasn't earning enough to pay my keep with my family. When a friend told me that the guerrillas paid, I went for it. But it was a total lie."116 He was fourteen at the time.

Some children join the guerrillas primarily for self-protection. Edgar had been in the UC-ELN and the paramilitaries were on his trail, so he switched to the FARC-EP for safety. What Edgar appreciated about life in the FARC-EP was that he felt respected for the first time and no one could insult him. "I felt like more of a man (más hombrecito), more to be taken seriously, than I ever did at home."117

Joining the Paramilitaries

The paramilitary forces pay child recruits a wage monthly or every three months, ranging between 900,000 and 1,200,000 pesos (approximately U.S. $300 to $400), with bonuses for special missions. Most of the former paramilitary children we interviewed said that they joined primarily for the money, even though this attitude was frowned on by paramilitary leaders. Many entered the AUC in the company of friends or already had contacts within the group.

"After school I was a baker's assistant. It was hard work and paid badly," said Leonel, who joined when he was fourteen. "I went to work on a farm but the work was hard too, so finally I joined the paras. I had friends inside. It paid 300,000 [U.S. $100] a month. It seemed like an easier life."118

Adolfo, tall and dark, said that when he joined he was asked how much money he needed in order to leave his family. "The recruiting sergeants were army reservists. They ask you how much money you need. Once you accept the money, that's it, you're in. If you don't turn up at the agreed time, you're dead."119

Óscar, who had one year's schooling, had an older brother in the AUC, a commander who died in combat. Several friends invited him to join. "They said it was nice. I liked the military life, it was cool," he told us with a grin. Óscar was captured ten days before our interview, after three years in the paramilitaries.120

Jesús and his friend Rigoberto, from Antioquia, enlisted at the same time. They were from the same neighborhood and hung out together. Broke and hungry and with nothing to do, they decided to give it a try, "to see what it was like." The experience lasted only two days. Early in the morning on March 2, 2002, the army entered the camp and took them both prisoner. Jesús was still in his civilian clothes.121

For some, like Laidy, a petite fourteen-year-old from Casanare, the decision to join the paramilitaries was still difficult to explain. "I don't know why I joined. I knew nothing about them. I decided on the spur of the moment. I wanted to be different, and I wanted to learn how to defend myself."122

Uriel, a tough-looking boy, had a powerful motive to join the paramilitaries. At eight, he and his younger sister were the only survivors after the FARC-EP raided their farm in the department of Sucre in 1996. He told Human Rights Watch that guerrillas shot dead his father, mother, and three siblings. Rather than go to an orphanage, Uriel chose the paramilitaries:

Family Welfare wanted to put me in a children's home. I didn't want to go. I already had friends mixed up with the Self-Defense Forces. I was living in the street. I wanted to enter the AUC for vengeance. So the compañeros took me in, and put me to work cleaning rifles, washing uniforms. I was eight at the time.123

Forcible Recruitment

Forcible recruitment in Colombia is the exception rather than the rule. It rarely takes the form of a military press-gang operation in which villagers are herded together at gun-point. More subtle pressures are usually involved. Often inducement and persuasion are backed by thinly veiled threats. Both the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN are credibly reported to resort on occasion to force to gain new recruits. The practice is far less common in the paramilitary forces, probably because they pay their fighters a wage and can recruit more easily.

Even though our sample sizes are not statistically significant, it was striking that out of the twenty children from the UC-ELN we interviewed, six told us that they were recruited by force. This suggests that the UC-ELN may resort to this practice with greater frequency than the FARC-EP.124

Jenny, a small girl with indigenous features, was only thirteen when she was press-ganged into the UC-ELN militia in Boyacá:

The ELN forced me to join. It happened about three months ago, at the beginning of March [2002]. They used to come around people's houses, where I lived in [the department of] Boyacá telling us we should join either the FARC or the ELN. The two groups worked together. They told me that I would be good at it. The FARC was requiring kids older than fifteen to join, although they accepted children younger than that. The ELN was requiring anyone over eleven to join. Adults didn't have to, although they were invited to.

Eight days after they came by my house, they made me go with them to their camp. It was a twelve-hour walk. There were about five hundred people there, mostly minors, including a lot, maybe fifty, who had been forcibly recruited. There were only about two hundred adults there.125

Jhony, the youngest of eight brothers from Casanare department, was hanging out in his old school (he finished studying in the fifth grade) when a group of UC-ELN members approached him and threatened to kill him if he did not go with them. "I was forced to join," Jhony said firmly. "They said it was only for three months and then they would let me go and take me back home. I don't think they were looking for me especially, just any kid who happened to be there." Jhony was captured by the army before the three months expired.126

Xaviera's experience of guerrilla life was an unwelcome gift from her father, a lifelong guerrilla with the UC-ELN. A black adolescent from Colombia's west coast, Xaviera told us that her mother died when she was fourteen:

When that happened, my father sent me to the guerrillas. He said he was sending me off to work. He told me that he had a debt with them, and that he had to hand me over in exchange. I hated it, but they told me that I had to stay, that if I tried to leave they'd kill me.127

Soria, a timid girl who looked younger than her sixteen years, told us she dropped out of school because her family could not pay the bills. She worked as a cook for a woman who scolded her constantly. Soria's best friend fell in love with an UC-ELN commander and joined the guerrillas. The commander threatened to kill her if she did not join too.

I didn't want to go. They forced me to work as a cook for them. Most of the kids there were happy. They liked having guns and fighting. I was crying and crying.128

Margarita, a sixteen-year-old from Boyacá, told Human Rights Watch that two men from the "José David Suárez" front of the UC-ELN blindfolded and kidnapped her in a friend's house. They said nothing to her, but took her by car to a place where there were about fifty guerrillas, some younger than her.129

The most plausible explanation of forcible recruitment is the inability of guerrilla units to replenish their ranks by voluntary enlistment alone. We are unable to judge whether the use of force is authorized at higher levels or whether recruiters resort to force to meet their targets even though the official guerrilla policy prohibits the use of force.

The practice also occurs in the FARC-EP. Twelve-year-old Gilberto had been distilling cocaine from coca leaves in the department of Putumayo, but there was no more work in his village:

I was invited to go and work in another village where I wasn't known at all. I had a .38 revolver for my own protection. Some guys from the FARC spotted me with the gun and suspected that I was a paramilitary. They captured me and tied

“I did not want to join, but I was convinced that if I did not go with them they would kill me.”

me up. They investigated me, but because I had never been with an armed group and they couldn't kill me without proof, they didn't do anything to me. I did not want to join, but I was convinced that if I did not go with them they would kill me. I felt I had no choice.130

Juan José is a Sicuani from Colombia's eastern department of Vichada, which borders with Venezuela and has a high number of indigenous communities.131 In November 2001, a FARC-EP squad passing through his village forcibly recruited him and several other members of the community, including women and children. The group was forced to march for three days to reach the guerrilla camp. After fifteen days training, the new recruits were taken by river on a three-week journey from Vichada to La Macarena, Meta, in the heart of the Zone:

As they were passing through the village, they tried to persuade me. They said that no one suffers in the guerrilla movement, that you have everything you need, and you don't kill anyone. But it was a lie, because once you are in, it's all different and they order you to do all sorts of things. Then they told me that if I didn't join, they would kill me. The same thing happened with several other indigenous recruits. It was a squad of five people that took me. There were other indigenous people with the guerrillas, women and children.132

A seventh grader, Johana got on well with her parents. She was inducted by force into the FARC-EP in December 2000 in Putumayo:

Four men I did not know stopped me in the street, put me in a van, and took me to the camp. They were armed with Galils [weapons]. They said they were picking up street kids. Four other students were captured with me. They didn't care that we were students. I told them I wanted to leave. I cried, but they didn't let me go. For a couple of weeks, I was extremely homesick. Finally, I got used to it. About a month later, my family came to the camp. They had figured out that I had been taken by the guerrillas. I was allowed to speak to them but another guerrilla stayed with us as a guard. I wanted to go home but they wouldn't let me. The commander said he would have let me go if my family had come to get me after five days, but not after a month.133

Arlette's experience was similar. Also a seventh grade student, she spent four months in the FARC-EP before making her escape:

I was living with my parents and brothers in a town near Popayán, Cauca. I was in seventh grade. I liked school. It was a Friday. We went down to the river to go swimming and they caught us. They didn't give us a reason. There were four of them in uniforms. They had AK-47s and Galils. They drove us four girls: Sofía, fifteen, Juanita, fourteen, Margie, sixteen, and me up into the mountains, to the camp. At 8:00 a.m. the next morning, our families showed up because someone had told them what happened, but the FARC-EP didn't want to give us up. They said we had to stay with them because they needed people to help. They had already given us our uniforms and weapons. They said it's too late for them to leave. Then they separated the four of us, sending some of us to other fronts.134

During her four years in the FARC-EP, Ángela worked as a nurse and a recruiter. From the other side of the fence, Ángela confirmed the children's accounts of the use of force and threats to gain new recruits.

Once in 1999, we forced some kids to join. We told them we were with the guerrillas, and they said they didn't want to join, that they wanted to keep studying. We said you're already with us; you can't leave. We were armed and we told them to come with us. There were ten or so of them, about sixteen to seventeen years old. They were terrified. But we needed people, so we brought them to camp in our truck. I felt really guilty.135

97Human Rights Watch interview with "Severo," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.

98Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

99Two more children told us they were pressured to join; ninety said they joined voluntarily, and the remaining children did not provide information on the subject. See also E. Miguel Alvarez-Correa and Julián Aguirre, Guerreros sin sombra: Niños y jóvenes desvinculados al conflicto armado, Procuraduría General de la Nación y Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, Bogotá, 2001 (unpublished). This comprehensive study gives similar percentages (78 percent voluntary; 10 percent forced).

100In her landmark report, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, the U.N Secretary General's Expert on Armed Conflict and Children, Graça Machel, wrote: "In addition to being forcibly recruited, youth also present themselves for service. It is misleading, however, to consider this voluntary. While young people may appear to choose military service, the choice is not exercised freely. They may be driven by any of several forces, including cultural, social, economic or political pressures." Report of the Expert of the Secretary General submitted pursuant to General Assembly resolution 48/157, A/ 51/306, August 26, 1996, para. 38.

101According to the Public Advocate's office, nearly half of a sample of eighty-six former child combatants they interviewed had been beaten by their parents. Forty percent had left school in the third grade. Fifteen percent had worked in cocaine processing. Boletín No. 8, La Niñez y sus Derechos: Caracterización Psicosocial de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes Desvinculados del Conflicto Armado, 2002, pp. 1-10.

102Human Rights Watch interview with "Osvaldo," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

103Human Rights Watch interview with "Diego," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

104Human Rights Watch interview with "Peter," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.

105Human Rights Watch interview with "Betty," Medellín, June 6, 2002.

106Human Rights Watch interview with "Humberto," Bogotá, June 4, 2002.

107Human Rights Watch interview with "Saúl," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

108Human Rights Watch interview with "Jorge," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

109Human Rights Watch interview with "Pedro," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

110Human Rights Watch interview with "Severo," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.

111Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

112Human Rights Watch interview with "Marilín", Medellín, June 5, 2002.

113Human Rights Watch interview with "Joseph," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

114Human Rights Watch interview with "Ramiro," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002

115 Liam Craig Best, "Interview with Antonio García," (retrieved on September 5, 2002).

116Human Rights Watch interview with "Giovanni," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

117Human Rights Watch interview with "Édgar," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

118Human Rights Watch interview with "Leonel," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

119Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

120Human Rights Watch interview with "Óscar," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

121Human Rights Watch interviews with "Jesús" and "Rigoberto," June 1, 2002 and June 10, 2002.

122Human Rights Watch interview with "Laidy," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

123Human Rights Watch interview with "Uriel," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

124The Colombian Family Welfare Institute noted, however, that the proportion of forcible recruits was particularly high in FARC-EP controlled areas. Guerreros sin Sombra, p. 72.

125Human Rights Watch interview with "Jenny," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

126Human Rights Watch interview with "Jhony," Bogotá, May 30, 2002

127Human Rights Watch interview with "Xaviera," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

128Human Rights Watch interview with "Soria," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

129Human Rights Watch interview with "Margarita," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

130Human Rights Watch interview with "Gilberto," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

131 Some 15,000 Sicuanis and Guahibos live in the departments of Casanare, Meta, Vichada, and Guaviare, and are among Colombia's population of close to one million indigenous people, according to the latest census published by Colombia's National Planning Department. See (retrieved on May 27, 2003).

132Human Rights Watch interview with "Juan José," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

133Human Rights Watch interview with "Johana," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

134Human Rights Watch interview with "Arlette," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

135Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

September 2003