Colombia’s largest rebel organization has stepped up the recruitment of children to boost its weakened fighting units even as it negotiates with the government an end to a half century of conflict. It talks peace with the government, according to child welfare workers and human rights organisations.
“As the guerrillas suffer blows and more and more people desert the FARC, they have begun recruiting children. The flow of child fighters into the ranks of the FARC could give it some leverage,” said Alma Viviana Perez, who heads the Colombian president’s office on human rights, which among other things works to prevent the recruitment of underage fighters. No one knows with certainty how many children are in the FARC and other rebels groups. According to some estimates, 40% of the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups are child soldiers, while 30% of the AUC paramilitary militia is composed of minors.
According to the UN Secretary General’s 2010 report, recruitment is “a common and systematic practice.” The boys have been utilized in the conflict (which has been going on for decades) to recruit other minors, to collect information and to assure logistic support; the young girls have been utilized as sex slaves. Whoever tries to escape is punished with death or subjected to torture.
The best recruitment is in schools. Not only do the guerrilla movements of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo) and of the ELN (Ejército de Liberacion Nacional) use minors, but also demobilized unites of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia).
According to a study by the Defensoria del Pueblo, a Colombian public institution, the average recruitment age is 12 and the children stay with the fighters for a period between two and five years.
In Mexico, the drug cartels use corruption, blackmail, and kidnapping to recruit children. According to the “Red por los derechos de la infancia,” there are 30,000 children involved in drug dealing. Not all use weapons: most are informers or pushers. In the rural areas of Sierra Durango or Michoacan, they grow drugs.
The office of the Mexican Chief Prosecutor confirmed that, between 2006 and 2010, 3,664 minors were arrested for criminal offences linked to organised crime, particularly to drug dealing. In 2010, the victims of violence linked to drug trafficking were 15,273, 63% more than 2009 (more than 1,000 of these were children).
According to the NGOs that work for the rehabilitation of children involved in drug dealing, minors are “cheap” labour that is easily replaceable. In Mexico, more than 1.5 million teenagers neither study nor work and, also for this, they become an easy prey for the narcos. Illicit traffic gives easy money and a privileged status. Besides, the Mexican army recently admitted having used more than three hundred 16-year-old conscripts in anti-narcos operations.
Last July, security forces rescued two children from the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. The guerrillas, who can currently count on an estimated 130 active fighters, have maintained their numbers by recruiting extremely young children – known as pioneros (pioneers) – and grooming them for a career in the insurgency. As they are initially recruited at an age where they will be of little use in combat, the children work with and are cared for by the Shining Path’s extensive support network, which runs throughout the villages of the VRAEM – the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valley – where the rebels hold more sway than the state.
In Central America, Mara and Pantillas (youth gangs) are continuing to recruit minors for their criminal activities. There are an estimated 900 gangs with 70,000 members. The Maras operate mainly in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. Honduras alone, is home to 4,728 gang members. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), gangs have provided protection to drug cartels and served as hit-men for the Mexican cartel Los Zetas in Honduras. They also collaborate with Los Zetas in human trafficking in El Salvador and Guatemala. In Honduras alone, extortions generate US$59 million a year for the gangs, according to a study by Honduran security analyst Billy Joya. Organized crime-related violence costs Central America US$6.506 billion, representing a 7.7% decrease to Central America’s US$263.39 billion GDP, according to the latest World Bank study.
Central America has a rate of 41 homicides for every 100,000 residents, according to a 2012 report by the UNODC. The countries with the highest rates are Honduras (88.5), El Salvador (69.2), and Belize (41.4). Nicaragua (12.6) and Costa Rica (10) have the lowest rates. In Mexico, the rate is 23.7 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Gang leaders use minors because they know that if minors are arrested they will not receive the same sentences as adults due to Honduras’ international agreements. The adults count on them receiving short sentences, enabling the minors to be back working for the gang quickly, Marvin Cruz, the MP’s spokesperson in Tegucigalpa, said. “Usually, adult [extortion] offenders are not involved in collecting,” he added. “They use minors for this because they are sent to rehabilitation centres, not prison.”
More than 500,000 children nationwide, including 10,000 in Tegucigalpa, risk joining a gang, according to IHNFA (Honduran Institute for Children and Families).
Last May, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18) gangs agreed to a truce at the San Pedro Sula prison in Honduras.
Asia. Terrorism and guerrilla warfare
In several countries of Asia the use of children in conflicts is widespread. In Pakistan, the intelligence agencies observed that several terrorist groups were indoctrinating and training a growing number of minors for terrorist attacks. Some documents were found and the interrogation of terrorists confirmed their new strategy: involving children in the Jihad (holy war).
In Afghanistan, the Taliban armed groups, the Jamat Sunat al-Dawa Salafia, the Hezbi-i-Islami party and the Haqqani network, and also the national police are using minors in their ranks. In the beginning of 2011, the Kabul government and the UN signed an agreement to prevent the recruitment and the utilisation of minors in Afghanistan’s security forces. In the meantime, around 100 children were arrested by the Afghani security forces and by the international military forces for their alleged involvement or for their association with the guerrillas. Access to prisons continues to be difficult and therefore information about detained children is limited. The UN criticised the Afghani police for using violent interrogation techniques with children, as well as electroshocks or other brutal acts to obtain confessions.
Myanmar is one of the countries in Asia with the highest number of child soldiers. Last June, the UN and the Government of Myanmar signed an action plan setting a timetable and measurable activities for the release and reintegration of children associated with Government armed forces, as well as the prevention of further recruitment. Two years of conflict in Syria have claimed over 70,000 lives. A recent report by Human Rights Watch has warned that hundreds of children from the towns worst affected by the conflict in Syria are being trained to take part in the war. Young boys, mostly from 14 years old, are sent on reconnaissance missions or to smuggle weapons to opposition groups. With no education, and with many traumatised by the violence or from witnessing the death of loved ones, a generation of children is being lost to the Syrian conflict. (M.S.)