Child soldiers are the most helpless and most voiceless of the vast victim pool created by five decades of war in Colombia.
On Saturday in Havana, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration will reconvene with the leadership of Colombia’s largest insurgency, known by the acronym FARC. And, for the first time in two years of peace talks, the warring sides will turn the stage over to the conflict’s victims.
When these victims take the microphone to air their grievances, they will denounce displacement, maiming by land mines, kidnappings, rapes, and massacres — laying blame to the patchwork of the country’s armed actors. But one of these armed groups straddles the line between victim and victimizer and will not be invited on stage: Colombia’s estimated 7,000 child soldiers.
These children have borne the uniforms of all of Colombia’s illegal armies and have engaged in the most brutal types of warfare. In order to create a lasting peace, the government and the rebels must devise a solution that ensures their reintegration into society.
Child soldiers in Colombia first caught the attention of the world in the 1980s, when drug cartels hired preteens to assassinate police in exchange for cash and motorcycles. In subsequent years, paramilitary and guerrilla forces made use of children in a widening array of hostilities.
With widespread desertions and combat deaths following government-led military campaigns, the FARC have compensated for their losses by recruiting minors. They are taught to extort, build explosives, and kill. In particular, young girls are targeted to perform domestic tasks and sex favors in guerrilla camps. Often, the FARC kidnap children; others are seduced by promises of much-needed food and shelter or are offered up by family members as a form of debt repayment to the insurgents.
The FARC are unlikely to invite child combatants from within their ranks to the negotiating table, but peace talks must address their issues. The Colombian Family Welfare Institute, which spearheads the government’s child soldier reintegration efforts, has documented more than 5,000 demobilized child combatants since 1999. Their depositions are essential to the country’s healing and a critical source of information about crimes committed.
Colombia’s track record of reintegrating child soldiers en masse is poor. But the 2003-2006 demobilization of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries can provide valuable lessons for the Santos government in its current dealings with the FARC.
• First, the government must pressure the FARC to provide honest information about drafting children into warfare. The guerrillas should not be permitted to repeat the duplicity of their AUC rivals, who denied systematic child recruitment despite substantial evidence to the contrary. AUC commanders allegedly returned thousands of child fighters to their homes prior to mass demobilizations in order to evade legal charges. The Santos administration and the FARC have a moral and legal obligation to guarantee transparency in the treatment of children in arms.
• Second, the administration must make the reintegration of child soldiers a state priority. Faced with few prospects of education or work, nearly a quarter of illegal fighters in Colombia return to crime in the years following demobilization. Moreover, after the AUC disarmed, their enemies murdered thousands of former paramilitaries. To avoid this, Santos would be wise to revisit his 2011 Law of Victims, in which the government pledges itself to financial reparations and rehabilitation for child soldiers.
The Santos administration could provide tax incentives to the private sector to encourage employment opportunities for young people raised in the ranks of the FARC. It should also bolster the institutions tasked with providing medical treatment, psychotherapy, vocational education, and witness protection to ex-combatants.
The U.S. government, a strong ally of Colombia, could condition some of its annual aid to the fulfillment of these commitments. Creating opportunities for demobilized fighters will, more than anything, promote the longevity of any peace deal.
The unsatisfying AUC demobilization was a costly rehearsal for the Colombian government in dealing with child combatants. But it offers lessons for today’s peace negotiations with the FARC.
The administration’s negotiators must hold the FARC to account for their victimization of thousands of children. By paying close attention to the neglected plight of child soldiers, Santos will ensure a brighter future for these young people, for peace, and for the Colombian nation.
Paul Angelo is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and received a Master of Philosophy in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is currently a senior instructor in the Languages and Cultures Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Navy.