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"Little carts" and "little bells": child soldiers in Colombia

Between 6,000 and 14,000 children are currently being used as soldiers by non-state armed groups, paramilitaries or militias.

Boys and girls play a variety of roles: combatants, spies, human shields, messengers, porters, kidnappers, guards, cooks, sexual companions or slaves, or placers of bombs. All child soldiers are virtual prisoners of their commanders; punishments for infractions are harsh, sometimes resulting in death. Girls are particularly at risk of sexual abuse. Since the collapse of negotiations in 2002, the risk of child recruitment has intensified- particularly for the thousands of children who have been displaced.

In urban areas, members of the militias - some 7,000 (an estimated 85 per cent) of whom are under 18 years old - are targets for recruitment. In the militia, children are called “little carts” because they ferry drugs and weapons without raising suspicion.

In rural areas, families often are forced to give up a child in order to survive. In many areas non-state armed groups or paramilitaries take children as part or in lieu of taxes families must pay. Therefore many families have fled their homes in order to keep their children. Some children may “volunteer” to join, especially paramilitary groups, which offer payment. But some also join non-state armed groups intending to defend their families against paramilitary attacks.

Non-state armed groups

The FARC has a long history of recruiting children. In June 1999, the FARC pledged not to recruit children below the age of 15, and in 2000 returned approximately 1,000 children to families in the despeje (demilitarised zone). Subsequently, however, FARC has continued to make public announcements calling for families to hand over children aged 13 or upwards, and recruiting in high schools. In April this year, FARC reportedly sent two boys (14 and 15 years old) to take two horses, one charged with explosives, to a military unit in the village of Acevedo (Huila); the bomb exploded 200 metres before the military objective, killing the 14-year-old. FARC policy of treating runaways as deserters and executing them has also continued.

One-third of FARC forces are believed to be female. Girls serve in combat roles and are often subject to sexual abuse and sexual slavery. Adolescent girls are reportedly sent on special missions that involve having sexual relations with government soldiers in order to elicit information. In June 1998 the ELN signed the Mainz “Heaven's Gate” agreement in which it agreed not to recruit under-16s. But reports of the ELN recruiting children under the age of 15 have continued to the present.

The paramilitaries and government

Paramilitaries also recruit and deploy children, for instance by circulating leaflets in rural areas calling young people in the region for “compulsory military service”, forcibly recruiting others, and offering payment to poor and internally displaced children. Service is considered compulsory for up to two years. Families that refuse to surrender their children for recruitment are sometimes attacked as suspected sympathisers of armed groups. Girls are at particular risk of recruitment, and a high level of sexual abuses by adult paramilitaries has been reported. The AUC refers to child soldiers as “little bells” because they are deployed in the frontline to draw fire, detect traps and serve as an early warning system. The Colombian government has declared a commitment to a “straight-18” standard for recruitment, and has signed but not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (CRC-OP-CAC). In its domestic legislation, the government has criminalised recruitment of under-18s by ‘rebel or self-defence groups', prohibited all recruitment of under-18s in its own forces, and demobilised children under the age of 18.However, students may still enlist in military school from the age of 15, and reports have emerged of children being used for intelligence work.

Child soldiers - child casualties

Child members of armed groups and paramilitaries have often been among the casualties of the conflict in Colombia. For example, in January 2000, eight FARC members estimated to be between the ages of 13 and 15 were killed during one attack. The involvement of children as combatants in the conflict has also placed other children at risk as when, in August 2000, one army unit mistook a party of school children for a non-state armed group and opened fire, killing six children aged between six and 10, and wounding six others.

Child soldiers who are captured, surrender or escape are at risk of being considered criminals and either being incorporated into the armed forces or detained in military installations. In the past the armed forces also have been known to force former child soldiers to locate and de-activate landmines laid by armed groups, or to act as informants and guides. In 2000, however, the government began its first programme for former child soldiers and by 2001 there were seven programmes for 140 boys and girls. The ICBF (Family Welfare Institute) has received just under 600 former child soldiers over the last three years, and has developed community based programmes for the majority. On the other hand, the draft law on Juvenile Criminal Responsibility now before congress could make children over 12 years old- including former child soldiers - criminally responsible.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers urges:

  • the Colombian government to ratify the Optional Protocol and implement its provisions, including the demobilisation and rehabilitation – rather than criminalisation - of all child soldiers;
  • non-state armed groups and paramilitaries to immediately stop recruiting children and to demobilise all those under the age of 18;
  • the government to provide employment and education alternatives to military recruitment, particularly for vulnerable children such as indigenous groups and those in refugee diaspora areas;
  • governments and humanitarian agencies to strengthen registration and protection mechanisms in border areas of all countries in the region in order to guarantee the right of asylum for victims of the Colombian conflict and to prevent displaced children from being recruited by armed elements;
  • the UN Secretary General to bring the situation in Colombia to the attention of the Security Council as a threat to international peace and security.


Extracted and abridged from the September Newsletter of the Child Soldiers Newsletter.
Read the original text at http://www.child-soldiers.org/cs/childsoldiers.nsf/Newsletters/Issue%205-September%202002?OpenDocument
Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2-12 Pentonville Rd, London N1 9HF, Britain (+44 20 7713 2761; 7713 2794; http://www.child-soldiers.org ).

Topics: Armed Forces