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Child Soldiers In Colombia: The Latest Threat To Colombian Peace

Updated: May 20

Benedetta Piva, Lachlan Kerr, and Reetinder Kaur Chowdhary, SOUTHCOM Team

Week of Monday, April 26, 2021


A child soldier in Colombia[1]


Colombian armed groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and criminal gangs continue to recruit children and teenagers, much as they did during the civil war of 1964. Despite numerous international and national attempts to address the issue, child recruitment has been increasing in the country throughout the last few years. This pattern exemplifies the failing nature of Colombia’s peace process that began in late 2016 and it has been exacerbated by the social and economic fallout caused by the pandemic. If greater efforts are not made to resolve this problem, youth will likely continue to join armed groups, which in turn allows for the expansion of their territorial control. This will likely prolong and accentuate the ongoing armed confrontations, further driving away hopes of peace. Thus, the Colombian government and other policymakers with vested interests in the country must take adequate measures to address this issue.


In 2016, the government of Colombia signed a peace accord with the FARC in a bid to reduce the violence and bloodshed in the country. However, despite the peace agreement and the subsequent disarmament of the FARC, the violence continues unabated. Although one of the conditions of the peace treaty was that all child recruits would be released from FARC, the treaty did not account for dissident splinter branches.[2] Armed groups in the country have stepped up child soldier recruitments in order to swell their ranks. Since 2017, there has been nearly a 40 percent increase in child soldier recruitment.[3] Turf wars, control over production and trafficking of cocaine, and a desire to expand their territory are what lead these armed groups to recruit children. Groups like the ELN, FARC dissidents, Los Caparrapos, and Los Urabeños are all responsible for recruiting.[4] The increase in recruitment means that these groups have more people fighting their wars for them and this implies a proportional increase in crime and violence in the country. As a result, child soldier recruitment does not only put the recruits at risk but also the wider Colombian population. Thus, a comprehensive strategy to tackle this issue needs to be developed.


There are many ways by which these groups recruit children. A lack of stability at home combined with the prospect of earning money, handling guns, and finding a sense of belonging is what entices many to join. Others are kidnapped and their families are threatened by murder to give them away. Distrust of the authorities and the inability of the system to confront the armed groups leads to families not reporting the recruitment of their children. Government programs like the Súmate por mí,[5] designed to prevent child soldier recruitment in rural areas by providing socio-economic programs and recreational activities to young people, are largely ineffective. This is because groups like the ELN have banned the implementation of this program. Colombia’s Institute for the Well-Being of Families (ICBF) runs demobilization camps for former child soldiers, establishing mentorship and close relations with the parents of these children. However, it has also been largely ineffective. The power and influence these groups have in rural and indigenous communities in Colombia (where most of the recruitment takes place) mean that the locals are scared to participate in government programs and initiatives. This renders these programs inefficient.


It is important to note that child recruitment is not opportunistic and erratic, but it is rather calculated and produced by a specific expansionary strategy. This is likely to be the consequence of the fact that the continuous confrontations among them and with government forces left the different armed groups with several dozens of fatalities. As a result, they seem to be driven by the need for new bodies contributing to the expansion of their territorial control. Armed groups use several different tactics to recruit children. It is often the case that young men in their twenties, wearing civilian clothes and traveling in a group, are in charge of recruiting children and teenagers.[6] Usually, they take children from remote communities such as Carurú and Tumaco, by intimidating and threatening families and local authorities who are unable to fight back.[7] Other times they hold parties in these rural villages, select their targets, get adults drunk, and charm children with stories of weapons and war.[8] Since these locations are very isolated, it is highly unlikely that family members decide to undergo the long journey to file reports about their children being forcibly recruited. As a result, it becomes more difficult for authorities to respond to, and try to deter, this phenomenon.


There are several factors driving children towards armed groups, with many child soldiers joining these gangs voluntarily. Investigations on the issue of child soldiers in Colombia, carried out by the Human Rights Watch, reports that “the majority of children in Colombia were voluntarily recruited into irregular armed forces”.[9] Similarly, a field study conducted by InSight Crime involving eight different departments highlighted a variety of psychological, emotional, environmental, and criminal cases that can drive a teenager to willingly join an armed group.[10] These groups provide the recruits, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a sense of belonging and community.[11] It is highly likely that many of these child soldiers decide to join the gangs to gain a sense of community and direction rather than feelings of hopelessness that comes with poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities. Moreover, offering the children a salary or a hot meal can be enough to convince them to join the group, considering that the majority of them come from crime-ridden and low-income communities. It is highly probable that many of these children join these armed gangs because they think they will be able to economically support their families by doing so. They have the impression that being a member would provide them with a way out of their suffocating poverty. For instance, paramilitary groups pay the teenagers recruited two million pesos to pursue their criminal cause in Bajo Cauca.[12] Another tactic used is that of offering companionship, with older boys and girls persistently courting their younger peers and then convincing them to join the guerrillas. Overall, structural factors like economic hardship and a lack of suitable life options, as well as emotional ones such as love and seduction, drive children to join armed groups. Therefore, a spectrum of very different components needs to be considered when tackling youth participation in organized crime.

The phenomenon of child recruitment in Colombia had already been increasing, but COVID-19 has created further challenges to eradicate it. More specifically, the amount of children and teenagers that have supposedly joined armed groups during the first half of 2020 already is equivalent to the amount that joined throughout 2019.[13] This is highly likely to be the result of social and economic repercussions caused by the pandemic, along with a revival of conflict and violence, which represent the perfect environment for recruiters. Indeed, unemployment is about twice its level now compared to 2019, and roughly half of the country’s labor force is employed in informal economies with little to no safety net.[14] At the same time, these gangs are taking advantage of the public health crisis to gain greater influence over local residents by scaring and exploiting them. However, the most worrying effect caused by the pandemic is the closing of schools, which represent the primary line of defense against child recruitment. Indeed, teachers try to protect their students as much as they can, providing them with a protected environment and the education necessary to have better opportunities in life. This has left children and teenagers (especially those coming from rural and isolated areas) very exposed, for teachers cannot look after them during this time. In this context, it is not surprising that they are willing to join an armed group as becoming part of such groups is thought to give them more opportunities and social recreation as well as a way to help their families.

Lately, children and teenagers who flee or are demobilized from militant groups face great challenges to reintegrate into society. This is because they find it very difficult to adapt due to their tough life experiences and the fact that they suffer strong stigmatization and rejection in the communities in which they try to settle.[15] As a consequence, those who are not able to effectively reintegrate into society are highly likely to join armed groups again, given that they feel they do not have other alternatives and prospects in their life. Therefore, it appears necessary to implement reintegration programs capable of successfully reintegrating demobilized children back into society and assisting them in overcoming the traumas they have undergone.

There is considerable work to be done in Colombia in regards to child soldiers. Recommendations for countermeasures fall into two categories: proactive programs that will prevent child soldiers and reactive programs that demobilize child soldiers and reintegrate them into civil society. Though programs in both these categories exist, such as the Súmate por mí and ICBF demobilization camps, existing programs do not have enough funding or support to do enough work.


In the past, government and international responses to child soldier recruitment have been very centered on reactive actions. Rather than focus on the causes behind the recruitment of child soldiers, governments respond to the issue by engaging child soldiers in combat.[16] This is often a very superficial solution and does nothing to prevent further recruitment of children. Instead, understanding the connection between child soldier use and recruiting, as well as the potential for more efficient early warning systems, should be implemented. This strategy could lead to actions that focus on strengthening protection frameworks for youth, such as neighborhood sensitization, security sector improvements, and education processes.


Proactive programs in Colombia have historically been underfunded and insufficient in size. They should be vastly expanded to increase their efficacy. Child soldiers typically come from impoverished, marginalized communities where recruiters seek out children with few options in life. Colombia should seek to expand job training and mentorship for children in impoverished regions where gang and armed group recruiters are known to be active. Children with other activities in their lives that have the potential for development and growth are less likely to be persuaded by recruiters, who prey on children with unfulfilling lives that need an outlet. These programs would ideally be public-private partnerships but could be run by either the government or NGOs.


Although programs aimed at preventing the recruitment of child soldiers are beneficial, systemic solutions aimed at increasing the quality of life, economic mobility, and life satisfaction are even better deterrents to child soldier recruitment. To achieve this goal, the Colombian government could work towards reducing poverty and expanding access to education that gives disenchanted Colombian youth alternate options than taking up arms. These solutions will not yield results immediately, but over time may lead to a decreased number of youth being recruited by armed groups.


Reactive measures remain necessary in Colombia given the number of child soldiers still active. Every attempt should be made to encourage child soldiers to demobilize, including attempts to negotiate with armed groups and have them dismiss their child soldiers (much like what was done with FARC in the 2000s). Though demobilization camps exist and have had some success, concerns have been raised at former child soldiers that later return to crime and violence. Some recidivism is unfortunately inevitable; these camps should continuously be evaluating their programs to ensure they are providing the best quality possible.


One potential issue in Colombia is the punishment of armed insurgents that were recruited as children but are now older than 18. Currently, a child soldier that puts down arms while still a child is treated more leniently by the court system. There has been some criticism over how child soldiers who are now adults get very little consideration in the courts for how they were recruited. This ties into a larger question of whether or not child soldiers should be seen more as victims or as perpetrators of violence.[17] Given the increase in child soldier recruitment, fully grown soldiers could be dissuaded from demobilization by fear of their treatment by the government. Colombia should consider reviewing its laws to create a policy that encourages former child soldiers to stand down. For instance, the fact that children and teenagers who have committed major crimes could face prosecution and be charged with the same crime of which they are also victims, may lead some of them to abdicate. It is important to point out that, in this context, prosecution of a child should only be viewed as a last resort, with the aim of rehabilitating and reintegrating the child into society.


Though no rebel or criminal group should be treated lightly, groups found to utilize child soldiers should be punished more harshly to dissuade other groups and show the penalties for the recruitment of children. The Colombian government should also reach out to the FARC splinter groups and armed gangs in an attempt to have them sign on to pledges that commit to restricting child soldier recruitment. While these demands might be rejected, the potential for success is high enough to make an attempt worthwhile. Broadening the range of early warning systems to identify, prioritize, and discourage the use of children as soldiers could be a concrete intervention having the potential to bring long-term structural change.


The problem of child soldier recruitment by armed groups in Colombia is undeniably serious. A lack of socio-economic opportunities for these children combined with the inadequacy of the government to provide for its citizens has contributed greatly to this problem. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the existing failings of the system and pushed more children to join these armed groups. As a result, it is highly likely that the recruitment of child soldiers will continue in the foreseeable future and will likely contribute to more violence and insecurity in the country.


The SOUTHCOM team at the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to be observant and monitor the situation regarding the recruitment of children in Colombia. CTG will track the events and local news reports relating to this issue. Continuous monitoring of this situation is important in order to gain a better understanding of the current problem of child soldiers as well as the security threats Colombia faces. By doing this, CTG can offer recommendations to AOCs and other international leaders as to how to mitigate issues and threats in the country.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]FARC Kids - Los niños de las FARC - Enfant-Soldats” by Silvia Andrea Moreno, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Colombia and FARC Rebels Reach a Deal to Free Child Soldiers, The New York Times, May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/16/world/americas/colombia-and-farc-rebels-reach-a-deal-to-free-child-soldiers.html

[3] Bajo Cauca and Vaupés – Colombia’s Child Recruitment Hotspots, InSight Crime, April 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/bajo-cauca-and-vaupes-colombias-child-recruitment-hotspots/

[4] Colombia armed groups turn forcibly recruited children into 'war machines': government, Reuters, February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-child-recruitment-idUSKBN2AC1ZC

[5] Gobierno Nacional pone en marcha estrategia “Súmate por mí” para prevenir reclutamiento infantil en territorios de alto riesgo, Government of Colombia, July 2020, http://www.derechoshumanos.gov.co/Prensa/2020/Paginas/evento-de-lanzamiento-sumate-por-mi.aspx

[6] Bajo Cauca and Vaupés – Colombia’s Child Recruitment Hotspots, InSight Crime, April 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/bajo-cauca-and-vaupes-colombias-child-recruitment-hotspots/

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Child recruitment in Colombia, Geneva International Center for Justice, November 2020, https://www.gicj.org/gicj-reports/1917-child-recruitment-in-colombia

[10] Bajo Cauca and Vaupés – Colombia’s Child Recruitment Hotspots, InSight Crime, April 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/bajo-cauca-and-vaupes-colombias-child-recruitment-hotspots/

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] How Colombia’s armed groups are exploiting COVID-19 to recruit children, The New Humanitarian, September 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/09/10/Colombia-conflict-armed-groups-child-recruitment

[14] Ibid

[15] Recruitment into armed groups and reintegration into society, Children Change Colombia, 2019, https://www.childrenchangecolombia.org/en/what-we-do/recruitment-and-reintegration

[16] Preventing the Use of Child Soldiers, Preventing Genocide, United Nations Chronicle, N.d., https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/preventing-use-child-soldiers-preventing-genocide

[17] Child Soldiers In Colombia: Victims Or Killers?, El Espectador, March 2021, https://worldcrunch.com/opinion-analysis/child-soldiers-in-colombia-victims-or-killers

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