BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The message was chilling.
“The guerrilla force is systematically recruiting many children and youth,” said Aída Quilcué, a Cauca Regional Indigenous Council leader in a message to President Juan Manuel Santos this past June.
The message called for a greater presence of authorities in the department of Cauca to fight the forced recruitment of minors, youth and women by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
“We have cases of minors ranging between 8 and 15 years of age who have been enlisted in the FARC by force,” Quilcué added. “This is why we are requesting help from the government to personally attend to this situation.”
Quilcué’s words to Santos came after a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study reported every minor in the FARC was coerced into joining the terrorist group.
Since 2006, more than 26,000 have been dragooned by the FARC, according to the study, which was presented by the Bogotá Mayor’s Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation earlier this year.
“What worries us the most is not just the forced enlistment of indigenous people or any young person in the region, but that unemployment and hunger lead many youth to willingly take up arms, and when they want to get out, it’s impossible,” Quilcué said.
Jorge Rojas, president of Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (COHDES), said the FARC also compels young women between the ages of 16 and 18 to join the country’s largest guerrilla group.
Women often are targets of physical and sexual abuse by their male counterparts, said Amalia Llano, a psychologist at the Colombian Institute on Family Welfare (ICBF), a public entity supporting the reintegration into society of children and youth who were guerrilla members.
“The girls who are forcibly recruited by the FARC are raped by several men at the front, which subjects them to several abortions during their life inside the conflict,” she said.
Indigenous children are often pressed to carry food supplies to guerrilla fronts, while other enlistees are made to go through intense training to become fighters, UNICEF reported.
“[By] recruiting, the FARC hope to replenish the number of members who have died in clashes with the authorities,” Rojas said. “Since authorities have increased their actions and the FARC is suffering ever more losses, the guerrilla leaders are hoping to recruit even more.”
The FARC kills those trying to desert, said Adriana Vallejo, a Universidad Javeriana political scientist and analyst in Colombian conflict issues.
“Once [the recruits] rebel or simply realize they don’t want to be involved in the conflict, they are usually executed by the FARC leaders,” she said. “They are shot, and this generates new waves of forced recruitment to fill the spaces left by those who were executed.”
The average age of FARC recruits in 2010 was 14.7; in 2005 it was 12.8; and in 2001, 13.8, according to UNICEF. The FARC also actively recruits youth in all of the Andean nation’s 32 departments, according to the government.
“The impact left on the adolescents who have been involved in forced enlistment varies,” Llano said. “In some cases, we have seen children who truly want an upstanding life and want nothing to do with war. They want to lead a decent life. However, there are other children who can end up in local organizations and gangs because of their ‘knowledge of war.’ In any case, our work is to support them to the fullest extent and try to guide them toward a decent life, to pardon the past and think of the future.”