Colombia’s largest guerrilla group Thursday said it would no longer allow 15-year-old children to join its ranks, bumping-up the minimum age to become a member of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to 17.
The announcement was made from Havana where the guerrilla group has been in peace talks with the government for more than two years.
In a written statement, the group said they hoped the decision would help the dialogues, but they also called on the government to quit drafting soldiers and shutdown its own youth-training programs.
It also accused the government of using minors to infiltrate its ranks. The group said that in 2014 it had turned over three child recruits who had been trained by the police “to assassinate guerrillas and commit acts of sabotage.”
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The government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle called the announcement a “step in the right direction” but reminded the group that anyone under 18 is considered a minor.
“We insist on the need to extend this decision to all the minors who are part of the FARC ranks today,” he said.
The announcement comes on the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers and as the two sides are inching toward what the nation hopes is a peace deal that will end the 50-year civil conflict. As part of that process the FARC declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire Dec. 20 and authorities acknowledge that they’ve kept their word.
The United Nations office in Colombia called Thursday’s news “an important step toward de-escalating the conflict” and a “a sign of good-will toward reaching a peace agreement.”
Others were more circumspect.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said that of the 17,345 guerrillas who demobilized between 2012 and 2014 a full 8,799 — or 51 percent — said they were recruited while they were still minors.
“I hope this is true,” he said of the policy change. “The country can’t keep waiting for announcements, it wants actions, too.”