In Colombia, young warriors drop guns

Published Aug. 7, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Jose's fascination with guns and explosives lured him to join Colombia's most powerful rebel army when he was barely 13 years old. But when he was ordered to turn his weapons on a group of civilians, he decided his guerrilla days were over.

Today Jose, a lanky 15-year-old, is trying to recover a childhood lost to the brutality of the nation's three-way civil conflict among government troops, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups.

"Being a guerrilla was cool. I liked the guns and being in combat with all that lead flying, but the bad thing was killing innocent people," he said in a halfway house where he has been living since deserting from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, four months ago.

Until he deserted, Jose was one of an estimated 6,000 children who fill the ranks of Colombia's rebel and paramilitary groups, as fighters, informants and spies.

Most are between 12 and 17 years old, but some are as young as nine, according to Juan Manuel Urrutia, director of Colombia's child welfare agency, which runs seven safe houses like the one where Jose is staying. The program offers former child combatants vocational training, psychological help and a chance to pick up their studies where they left off.

Since both the guerrillas and paramilitaries make a point of killing deserters, the location of the safe houses for former child fighters in Bogota and several other cities in Colombia is kept secret, and the welfare agency prohibits the use of their real names.

The children stay at the houses for from four to eight months. After that, those who can and want to return to their families, do. Others are sent to foster homes. The older ones are offered government aid to start up small businesses or go into vocational schools.

"The idea is to give them a new life project and give them back a real willingness to live," Urrutia said.

Often child combatants join the rebels voluntarily, either as an escape from family violence or poverty or for lack of any other options. Some 6.5-million of Colombia's 17-million children live in poverty and 2.5-million are forced to work to support themselves or their families.

Francisco, 14, used to make about $150 a month _ one-third higher than the minimum monthly salary _ giving information to the FARC about the paramilitaries, police and army whom he was friends with in his hometown.

The local FARC commander would order him to report twice a month, and Francisco was happy with his work until the rebel gave him a revolver and told him to kill one of his friends he had been getting information from. He refused and entered the child combatants program for protection.

Other children are rounded up and forcefully recruited. "There's a lot of pressure and the rebels impose quotas on families and towns to send their kids to fight," Urrutia said.

Claudia, a coquettish girl of 17, voluntarily joined the 5,000-strong National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second-largest rebel group, when she was 12 years old. She was allowed to return home after a year and a half as a guerrilla fighter to help her family tend their opium poppy plantation and return to her studies.

But one night as she was approaching her school from a break from classes, the FARC rounded her up off the street along with three classmates and forced them to join their ranks of 17,500 fighters.

She was captured two years ago by the police when she was being treated at a hospital for a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her left knee. Today, after having passed through several correctional facilities, she is living in the same house in Bogota as Jose and Francisco.

Claudia says the hardest part for her about being in the FARC was not the combat she saw _ she boasts about spraying a soldier with gunfire from her Galil automatic rifle _ but being away from her family.

"In the ELN they let us have contact with our families but not in the FARC," she said. But even now she cannot return to her family home.

"Everyone is looking for me: the guerrillas because they're afraid I'll give information to the army and the paramilitaries because they want the information I have," Claudia said.

Jose missed his mother too, but it was the killing that was hardest for him. Jose claimed his first victim when he was 14: A commander ordered him to execute a suspected paramilitary infiltrator in their camp. His face clouds over when he thinks about that day. "It was hard, just shooting him like that," Jose said. "After a while you get used to it but I never liked it."

And when he received the order from his commander earlier this year to blow up an army truck carrying civilians, as well as soldiers, he decided he'd had enough.

"He (the commander) knew there were civilians in the truck, there were children, but he told me to blow it up anyway. I didn't want to kill innocent civilians, so I just stopped a car on the road and told the driver to take me to the nearest army base," Jose said.

He still loves guns, and when Jose thinks what he'll do now, his first option is grim. "I could be a really good hired gun," he said, cracking a smile. "Or maybe a race car driver!"