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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
A seventh grader, Johana got on well with her parents. She was inducted by force into the FARC-EP in December 2000 in Putumayo:
Arlette's experience was similar. Also a seventh grade student, she spent four months in the FARC-EP before making her escape:
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.
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," http://www.colombiareport.org/colombia25.htm (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 http://www.dnp.gov.co/ArchivosWeb/Direccion_Desarrollo_Territorial/divers_etnica/indigenas/doc_interes/Pueblos_Indigenas/Capitulo_1.pdf (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.