Tuesday, August 14, 2012

'Like Lambs Amongst Wolves'

A child fighter in Colombia. 
This afternoon, researchers will present a harsh and jarring study of the use of children by Colombia's illegal armed groups.

The study is based in part on interviews and analysis of the experiences of fighters who've left the leftist guerrillas, the right-wing parmilitaries and the criminal bands who in many cases inherited the paramilitaries' territories and drug routes. The investigators both interviewed ex-fighters and looked at the ages at which these men and women began their outlaw existences.

According to Natalia Springer, a ´political analyst and columnist for El Tiempo and other media who participated in the study, four out of ten guerrilla fighters are children. She said they lacked enough data to provide statistics about the other groups, but that she suspected the post-paramilitary criminal groups of recruiting more children than both the FARC and ELN guerrillas combined.

These statistics have been confirmed, tragically, by studies of the ages of guerillas killed in military attacks.

A girl fighter poses proudly with a rifle
that's almost bigger than she is.
Children often join these outlaw groups for understandable, if misguided motives. Some are so poor that fighting looks like a reasonable career option. Others want to avenge the killing of a brother or father by a different outlaw group. Young girls sometimes fall in love with an older guerrilla fighter. Others, however, are recruited by force - kidnapped politician Ingrid Betancourt wrote that the FARC guerrillas demanded that indigenous people give the guerrillas a certain number of their children.

This May, the FARC kidnapped 13 children from a rural school in Putumayo.

Whatever their motives for entering, the children's prospects are terrible and their fates often horrific. The outlaw groups allegedly use the kids as cannon fodder, ordering them for example to carry bombs. After all, police don't suspect children of committing crimes, and if a child gets killed it's much less of a loss than the death of a trained fighter. For their part, girls often become victims of sexual abuse and are taken as sexual partners by older guerrilla leaders. When they become pregnant, they are forced to abort.

This column by Springer tells the story of one boy who was forced to carry a human head, 'to get accustomed to the stench of death,' and another who had to learn to kill. Altogether, she says, some 18,000 children are in armed groups in Colombia, and some 100,000 are employed in illegal industries.

The study: 'Como Corderos Entre Lobos' will be presented today, Wednesday the 15th, at 4 p.m. at the national headquarters of the ICBF.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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