Colombia has been the battleground of drug lords, drug trafficking, and militants for many decades now. Minors as young as 14 years old have been killed and killed, and hitmen of various cocaine-producing and distributing groups. Thousands of Colombian families have lost their children to multiple gang operations across the country. They exploit and recruit children through incentives and force like salaries and threats.
“But in Colombia, government officials and civil society organizations have documented a sharp increase in forced recruitment since the pandemic began,” writes John Otis. “The Bogotá-based Coalition Against the Involvement of Children and Young People in Colombia’s Armed Conflict, or COALICO, reported that at least 190 minors were recruited during the first six months of 2020 — five times the number it tracked a year earlier. This likely represented only a small percentage of the actual cases, given the fear many families have of reporting such episodes.”
There are different reasons for minors joining, staying, and participating in these violent clashes and causes. Poverty in the state plays a vital role in why youth engage in such violent activities. Many former gang soldiers confessed to the insight crime that they joined criminal groups to support their families. However, soon they are entrapped in multiple criminal cases and charges, due to which they can’t leave these groups quickly.
“Protracted violence and poverty in Colombia have led many thousands of children to be recruited into armed groups and gangs, by force or under the impression that becoming a member will offer them an escape from grinding poverty. Armed groups forcibly brutalize the children they recruit and those who attempt to escape face paying for the decision with their life. Those young people who do manage to escape face severe stigmatization and insufficient support from the State to build a new life,” write staffers at About Children Change Colombia.
Other reasons include emotional, social, and environmental factors. Many teachers insult or ignore academically weak students, making them feel inferior, incapable, or unimportant. Many youngsters join groups like Los Caparrapos and Urabenos to get over their harsh feelings and feel empowered and valuable with guns in their hands. Sometimes, children and teenagers are recruited through force and threats by militants and insurgent groups. According to Insight Crime, in November, insurgents took 18 children from the Carurú community by force. They threatened families to hand over their eldest child to fight for their pointless cause, while weak families and local authorities remained helpless.
After the peace deal and demobilization of FARC, one of the largest belligerent groups, the government, and people of Colombia took a sigh of relief in 2016. However, the peace did not last long and backfired soon. Many members and soldiers of the former FARC continued their violent activities and recruitment of teenagers. Many FARC leaders turned back to their old businesses of illegal drug trafficking and abductions, stating that the government is not respecting the terms of the deal.
A void appeared in illegal drug production and distribution with the demobilization of FARC. Smaller groups engaged in a competition to expand their territories and increase their illegal businesses. Los Caparrapos and their former mentors in drugs, Urabenos, engaged in violent battles and turf wars, leaving hundreds dead. To replace those dead bodies, they need to recruit more teenagers either forcefully or voluntarily to kill and die for their cause and money.
Children and teenagers are the prime targets of these insurgent groups, including ELN (National Liberation Army) and EPL (Popular Liberation Army), etc., for multiple reasons. Children can play various roles inside these criminal organizations. They work in drug labs, transport drugs, landmines, intelligence, assassins, and frontline combatants. Moreover, small incentives easily incite them for limited hours of duty after school (if they study). Most of them join as informers or transport drugs and eventually end up on the frontlines to kill and die.
Many ex-FARC or former soldiers lucky enough to escape from this vicious entrapment regret their past actions. In contrast, many on-duty teenage criminals say there’s no other choice than to join one of these criminal groups and survive.
Even decades of active fighting, violent battles, extraditions, and sanctions couldn’t stop these drug lords and insurgent organizations.