BOGOTÁ — Two longstanding Colombian armed groups are cited in the United Nations secretary-general’s annual “list of shame” released this month, enumerating parties who use children in armed conflict, among other related human-rights abuses. The country’s two major antigovernment guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, and the National Liberation Army (Eln), have persistently made the cut for violating children’s rights year after year.
The UN’s shame list is made up of two sections: entities that are on the Security Council agenda of work; and those not on the agenda but are “situations of concern.” The Colombian situation is on the agenda of the Security Council working group on children and armed conflict. The country is currently a member of the council, and its mission to the UN declined requests for an interview for this article.
Since 2010, the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos has taken steps to prevent child recruitment, while reparations are now available for victims. Last year, for the first time, paramilitaries were convicted for sexual violence against minors and for child recruitment. In addition, the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare gave protection to 282 demobilized child soldiers in 2011.
Yet, the situation does not seem to be improving. Besides Farc and Eln, Colombia has new illegal armed groups, like the Águilas Negras and Los Restrepos, who are also widely understood to be systematically and increasingly recruiting children, says the UN and watchdog groups. Children of African descent and from indigenous populations are disproportionately affected, the UN also said in a report this spring.
But political disagreement over the new groups’ status as structured armed militias or as unorganized criminal gangs – called bacrim in Spanish – has led to their omission from the UN shame list, so the children suffer first as victims and then, if they are lucky enough to be released by the militias or escape, they are unable to access their basic rights. These include psychological services to help them reintegrate into mainstream society.
Colombia’s internal armed conflict dates back to the 1960s, when the country’s two main left-wing insurgencies, the Farc and the Eln, materialized. The government’s inability to control the groups led to private landowners’ creating their own right-wing paramilitary units in the 1990s. An umbrella organization for the paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or Auc, formed in 1997.
The left-wing groups and the paramilitaries have all been tied to drug trafficking; their conflict has left tens of thousands of dead and millions of people internally displaced or as refugees in neighboring countries and elsewhere.
The government demobilized Auc from 2003 to 2006, releasing about 32,000 members. Nearly 400 minors were also formally demobilized, but the process was not made public and the children did not go through reintegration services, said Fernando Sabogal, president of the Bogotá office of Defense of Children International, a nonprofit group that works to protect children’s rights.
Sabogal and others say that these children remain acutely vulnerable to recruitment again by the new illegal armed groups, which have formed, he said, in the Auc’s void. “The perception is that these kids are offenders and delinquents,” Sabogal said. “But they are minors, and independent of the bacrim, the Farc, they are kids who are in the middle of the conflict and you have to guarantee their rights.”
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, noted in a March 2012 report on Colombia that violence by these groups has risen. It said that while many of these groups were “dedicated only to criminal activities, others operate in a manner similar to that of the former paramilitary organizations.”
The new illegal armed groups are said to function only in certain areas of Colombia. “Most of the recruitment risks that we see come from these paramilitary groups, which have a very strong control over Soacha,” Victor Hugo Olaya, an officer of the Bogotá-based Foundation for Education and Development, said of the city just south of Bogotá that is considered a strategic corridor for armed groups.
The foundation, known as Fedes in Spanish, halted its recruitment-prevention programs in one area of Soacha in 2011 for six months. A drug gang controlled by an illegal armed group recruited one of Fedes’s youth members, Olaya said, placing the foundation temporarily on unsafe grounds. It has since resumed its work in this area.
“The government says that the armed conflict is very small, concentrated and controlled in rural zones in the country,” Olaya added. “But we are talking about not only rural zones – if you just go to Medellín, to Soacha, just outside of Bogotá, this conflict is there. And so is recruitment.”
The secretary-general’s annual report on children and armed conflict said that though the scope of child soldier use in Colombia remains unknown, it documented 300 cases of recruitment in 29 of the country’s 32 departments (or states) in 2011. The average age of children who are recruited is about 12, down from about 14 years old in 2002.
Like other child soldiers throughout the world, girls who are recruited by “nonstate” militias in Colombia are subject to sexual violence, the report said. They are often required to have sex with adults at an early age and forced to abort if they become pregnant.
One 16-year-old girl, the report said, underwent five forced abortions during the four years she was associated with Farc. Government security troops were also said to be committing sexual violence against children.
The numbers in the reports, however, do not fully reflect the problem. As Naomi Miyashita, the program officer for Colombia in the office of the UN special representative on children and armed conflict, said, “The number of cases that we document isn’t representative of the dimension of the problem.”
A UN official familiar with the matter added that “over the past few years, we have been noticing the increasing presence and use of children by these so-called bacrim and that is a worrying trend.”
A recent report by the New York-based research group Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict documented and analyzed this trend in Colombia, while noting that the government’s military continues to use children as informants as well, placing them at risk for retaliation. Watchlist estimates that 5,000 to 14,000 child soldiers exist throughout the country. The UN report found cases of government military harm to former child soldiers, including a case where a 15-year-old boy who escaped from the Farc and surrendered to the army was held by the military for 72 hours.
The use of children in Colombia’s 50-year internal conflict has various roots, but the enhanced government offensive since 2002 against the guerrillas has apparently led to their increasing the recruitment of youths to strengthen their ranks.
Watchlist and its partner in Colombia, Coalico, a group of prevention-recruitment organizations that includes Fedes and receives financing from such international bases as the European Union, have yet to formally extend an invitation to the working group to visit. But Colombian organizations say that a trip by the Security Council working group would provide much-needed international attention to the problem of child recruitment – especially by the new illegal armed groups – in the country. A trip to Colombia, however, is not only a political challenge but also a logistic one, since each country has to pay its own way to Colombia. The working group has visited Afghanistan and Nepal in the past.
“To have the working group come here would give this issue more precedent and would have a very strong impact,” Olaya of Fedes said.
The working group, which is currently headed by Germany, a member of the Security Council through 2012, is finalizing its country conclusions on Sudan and South Sudan. A German spokesman told PassBlue that the group would take up Colombia’s situation next. The working group consists of all 15 Security Council members, who convene regularly to negotiate conclusions on country-specific reports. These are submitted by the special representative on children and armed conflict on behalf of the secretary-general.
It waits to be seen how Colombia will react to the working group’s consideration of the child soldier issue in its country.
“We really wouldn’t want to judge what the reaction of the Colombian government would be” to the secretary-general’s March report on Colombia,” Filipa Guinote, an officer for Watchlist, said. “They aren’t outwardly defensive, but they are in general cautious about this issue … which is viewed by the government as a national issue and not something that the Security Council should necessarily be looking at.”
As one UN official said, asking not to be named, it’s a “sensitive, touchy subject.”
[This article was updated on June 29, 2012.]