The FARC talk peace in Havana — but meanwhile, back in Colombia, the FARC are increasing their recruitment of children to boost their weakened fighting units, according to child welfare workers, officials and community leaders.
During the peace negotiations with the Pastrana government, the FARC also increased their recruitment of children, and every child in the former demilitarized zone lived in vulnerability.
It is hard to know with certainty how many children are in the FARC, and estimates range from 5,000 to 9,000 even 15,000. Human rights groups and former child rebels say there are at least hundreds of underage fighters, if not thousands. In the last dozen years, the government has attended to more than 5,000 children who have left illegal armed groups, most of them from the FARC; about 500 children are now in special government-run orphanages for former underage fighters.
The FARC-government negotiations must include immediately returning child soldiers to families, and all groups who use child soldiers must be held responsible.
But the government also needs to step up its efforts to uphold the rights of children. Besides FARC, Colombia has the ELN — and new groups continue to form: the neo-paramilitary gangs (collectively known as “bacrim” or “bandas criminales”) include Águilas Negras, Los Restrepos, Urabeños, Rastrojos, among others. These emerging gangs recruit children into their ranks. But the government gives the bacrim no political recognition so when these children are released, they are unable to access their basic rights, which include psychological services to help them reintegrate into mainstream society.
From 2003 to 2006, 32,000 paramilitaries abandoned arms, and among them were nearly 400 minors — but the process was not made public and the children did not go through reintegration services. They remain acutely vulnerable to re-recruitment.
Further, the care provided at government-run foster homes and reintegration programs is poor, according to the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. The program lacks funding to provide enough aid and skills training to children to provide a viable alternative to joining armed groups or criminal gangs. When asked, the children request more help attaining an education.