VERDADABIERTA.COM, September 5, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

With a path that has been prioritized, the transitional justice agency has finished characterizing the phenomenon, and has called for voluntary testimony. However, in the past, some of the former guerrillas denied having forced boys and girls to enter their ranks. Will we be hearing that same story this time?

The provisional figure of 18,677 minors recruited, shook up this country a few weeks ago when it was divulged by the JEP. To arrive at that number, which is part of the facts being investigated at this stage by the transitional justice system created in the Peace Agreement, data was compared from at least 36 reports by victims’ organizations, by the government, and by universities.  

The work comparing this information was done by the Recognition of the Truth and Responsibility and Determination of the Facts and the Actions Branch (SRVR in Spanish), with the support of the Information Analysis Group (GRAI). It wasn’t easy.

The underreporting was made concurrent by using different factors, such as the long time that the armed conflict lasted; the fact that such recruitment was not made a crime until 1997; the limited filing of complaints because of fear of retaliation by the armed groups; and the limited government presence in the places where recruitment was critical.

That, plus the human intervention in the procedures of certification of the information, the possible errors in the algorithm of analysis, and the missing data, could generate some inaccuracies. But it was with exactly this information that the SRVR was able to adopt a decision that shows the steps to be followed in Case 07, opened by the JEP to try those responsible for the crime of recruitment and use of boys and girls in the armed conflict.

The measure was formalized last August 10 by Order 159 of 2021, which is composed of four essential elements: the completion of a preliminary analysis of forced recruitment; the resulting investigation of the crime in cases that occurred between 1996 and 2016 in which it’s alleged that the now-defunct guerrillas of the FARC were responsible; the establishment of three hypotheses to be investigated and of three crimes related to those cases; and the call for voluntary testimonies, initially of the 26 former members of the FARC who had been involved with the Eastern Bloc.

Taking that on will be a challenge for the JEP.

A clear path

From the nongovernmental organizations like Save the Children and the Coalition Opposing the Connection of Boys and Girls and Young People With the Armed Conflict in Colombia (Coalico in Spanish), you get a positive opinion about the JEP’s decision.

For the Coordinator of Coalico’s Technical Secretariat, Hilda Molano, it’s an important step and a significant advance that they have been able to establish a provisional universe of the recruitment events, because that contributes to establishing the magnitude of the recruitment phenomenon during the war that broke out in this country.

To achieve the prioritization set forth in the Order, the JEP created a characterization of forced recruitment. It explained that between 1997 and 2000, in 2002, 2007, and 2013, there were four main peaks in that criminal activity.

For those periods, there were nearly six thousand victimizations. That’s 28 percent of the total. In addition, the provinces of Meta, Antioquia, Guaviare, and Caquetá were the ones that registered the most cases.

The profile of the minors affected was also defined, which is essential to understanding the dynamic of recruitment. In that regard, it was determined that 54% of the universe of victims were boys, 22 percent were girls, and the gender of the remaining 24 percent could not be determined.

Similarly, it was found that 30.47 percent were under 15 years old, 52.85 percent were older than 15, and it was not possible to learn exactly what the ages of the others were.

Another of the most relevant points is that they are planning to investigate, one by one, all of the Blocs of the FARC, to analyze their dynamic, command style, and the particularities of the areas where they operated. All of that is for the purpose of determining, individually, if there were operational patterns in specific recruitments.

It’s been established that the Eastern Bloc will be the first to be scrutinized. That guerrilla group had influence in the provinces of Arauca, Boyacá, Cundinamarca, Casanare, Meta, Guaviare, Vichada, Guainía, and Vaupes, where 50 percent of the recruitments of minors was concentrated and thus the responsibility of that Bloc, now demobilized. The total is 8,987 victims.

In those provinces also, there are 166 reservations where 60 indigenous groups are living, and at present, there are 117 pending requests for the establishment of new reservations.

Because of that, and because there are at least 368 victims associated with the Eastern Bloc who reported belonging to ethnic groups, the JEP established a special ethnic component that allows witnesses giving voluntary testimonies to tell about the effects of  recruitment on minorities.

Of the total number of victims, 83.7% are identified as indigenous, 15.8% as Afro-Colombian, and 0.3% as Rrom (gypsies). Nevertheless, the number could be higher, since identification came from analysis that often lacks the tools that would permit a conclusion as to whether the minors were part of ethnic peoples or not.

The impacts of recruitment on those populations were specific: “For the ethnic peoples, it meant a rupture, not just in terms of family ties, but even cultural ties. For the communities it was very complicated to think about how the boys and girls could return from the recruitment, after being part of the conflict, and go back to being part of that community,” explains Molano.

Justice Nadiezhda Henríquez, President of the SRVR, agrees with that. She says that when a child is violated, it also affects their future and the continuing existence of the community they belong to. She also says that the JEP’s Ethnic Committee is committed to accompany the team that is carrying out the proceedings in Case 07.

It’s expected that the ethnic focus can be applied in the investigations of the other Blocs of the FARC, which, in order, will be the South, where there are 2,669 victims; the Northwest, with 1,818 victims; the West, with 1,420 victims; the Joint Central Command, with 977 victims; the Magdalena Medio, with 727 victims; the Caribbean, with 719 victims; and the Arturo Ruiz Mobile, with 114 victims.

Cross-checking criminal acts

Perhaps one of the most important aspects that the SRVR is considering is that there are three hypotheses being used in the effort to explain the alleged political and military strategy by which the FARC devised, promoted, and carried out or allowed the recruitment and use of minors.

The first is that the now-defunct armed group recruited 15, 16, and 17-year-old boys and girls systematically as part of their express and formal recruitment policy. That conclusion was reached because at least 9,870 minors of those ages joined the FARC.

The second hypothesis notes that 15-year-old minors were recruited in violation of FARC regulations. There are 5,691 people in that classification.

And finally, that the guerrilla group violated multiple rights and committed various crimes against minors, their families, and the communities they were part of. Among those was the sexual violence based on gender, as well as forced abortion, forced birth control, violent and abusive carnal acts, sexual slavery, and other actions against sexual and reproductive integrity. That conduct could represent international crimes.

Furthermore, there is reference to forced disappearance, which could constitute a crime against humanity. The majority of accredited victims in Case 07 are actually families of minors whose whereabouts is unknown, and there are four petitions for provisional remedies for the location, exhumation, and dignified delivery of the remains of the boys and girls that were recruited.

In fact, the UBPD has informed the JEP of 92 cases of minors believed to be disappeared, and of the exhumation of some of them who died as a result of the “Operation Berlin”, undertaken by the Colombian Army at the beginning of the decade of the 2000’s.

The homicide, the torture, the cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment and other inhuman acts are crimes that the JEP also plans to take up, because, apparently, they were committed in the context of recruitment as methods of retaliation and punishment of the minors in the ranks of the FARC.

Nevertheless, Attorney María Paula Martínez, currently the Director of Save the Children, told that forced recruitment is an invisible crime, and it’s not so easy to prove the connection with other kinds of crimes. That makes analyzing recruitment a difficult task.

Denial Talk

The road to a decision by the JEP was preceded by the voluntary testimony of former guerrillas, which took place last year. However, the ones that gave testimony were constantly denying that the FARC designed and executed plans for the recruitment of children, and they resorted to the concept of voluntariness.

We have already heard Coalico say that the fact that the children are saying that they went to join the armed group does not diminish the guerrillas’ responsibilities.

The former guerrilla chieftain Pablo Catatumbo said on August 19, 2020, that there was no “wicked policy” to involve children in the internal armed conflict, in spite of admitting that some minors could have been members of the FARC. He denied that boys and girls were demanded as some kind of “quota” that obligated the families.

“The FARC was not an organization that had a policy of recruiting children. The FARC was not a children’s Army. There was no political guideline regarding efforts directed to checking to see if there was a minor that could be linked to the organization,” Pastor Alape said a few days later.

That former guerrilla chief said he remembered two times that some former members of the FARC arrived at the camp with boys or girls, and he ordered them to find their family and take them back to them.

He also explained that it was established in the units that only people that were able to handle combat went into combat, so that minors were excluded, because they were not in any condition to get involved in military activities.

Nevertheless, he emphasized the importance of keeping in mind that in a war, nearly 60% of personnel are used for activities like logistics, attending to the wounded, working on health services, security, food and supplies.

“The minors that came to the FARC didn’t all leave their homes. The great majority were already working on farms, helping with sawmilling, taking care of cattle, cultivating coca, servants, and cooks,” he pointed out.

Perhaps the witness who gave the most detail is the former Commander Julián Gallo, who was known by the alias “Carlos Antonio Lozado”. He explained in September of last year that the FARC had meetings with Community Action Boards and other kinds of committees.

In that way, the procedures for allowing the young people to join the militias was followed by sports and culture activities that the armed group help with, to avoid having them fall into the habit of consuming psychoactive substances.

In every case, he confirmed the statements of Alape and Catatumbo: “An Army of people that are compelled, of people that are deceived, would not have been able to maintain a war with the government for fifty years. That could only be accomplished by a group that has a structure, that has some convictions, that follows regulations.”

He also asserted that it’s possible that there were some lies, for example, promising the minors that they would receive economic assistance of some kind for their families if they joined the organization. He said that would never have been authorized by the FARC.

Among the challenges that have been made to the former members of the now-defunct guerrillas is whether they talked to or punished those who recruited minors, thus violating the rules of the organization, or asked them why they were not complying.

In the document, “Political Declaration of the Second Conference of the Guerrillas of the Southern Bloc,” it’s stated that nobody is allowed to enter the FARC against their will, and in the Seventh National Conference of the FARC-EP, carried out in 1982, recruitment committees were established to try to incorporate people aged from 15 to 30 into the organization.

Rodrigo Londoño, who in the war was called “Timoleón Jiménez” or “Timochenko”,  said he didn’t know why some of the regulations had not been followed, and he had had nothing to do with the selection of the members of the Arturo Ruíz Column. He said he had visited it, but he had not identified anyone there as a minor.

Considering the words of all of these former guerrillas, you might think that it’s unlikely that they would change their stories this time, the stories in which they minimized the participation of minors in the war. Nevertheless, positivity peeks into the door for experts like Martínez, who believes that anything that brings clarification of these events and to the protection of the boys and girls is welcome.

“We hope that the pressure, this progress in the Case and the information that is being collected in the file will help and motivate a situation where the parties furnish significant support for finding the whole truth (… ) In this case, for us it has been a repeated request that we not receive self-justifying talk, or political talk that tries to humanize that which cannot be humanized,” states Molano, for her part.

A Lurking Phenomenon

The steps needed to figure out what happened in the armed conflict up to 2016 have been taken. But the peace and the end of victimizations and hostilities in this country are still far away.

Now, points out Martínez, the migrant children are being recruited and used, and the most worrisome thing of all is that there are no statistics on that.

Furthermore, there’s the pandemic of the coronavirus, which has brought with it interruptions and pauses in school activities, and that has been one of the factors that lead to continued recruiting, especially in regions like Catatumbo and in provinces like Nariño, Valle del Cauca, and Arauca, according to Attorney Martínez.

But that’s just one of the reasons, according to the report “The Dynamics of Armed Conflict and Organized Violence; Effects and Risks for Boys, Girls, Adolescents, and Young People,” published in April of this year by the Ideas for Peace Foundation and supported by Save the Children.

Lack of awareness of the magnitude of the incidence of recruitment, the normalization of different forms of violence against children, the failure by government agencies to take preventive action, and the fact that the armed groups see advantages in having boys and girls in their ranks, are other factors that have contributed to the resurgence of this phenomenon.

In that regard, the organizations that now represent a threat to children are the post-demobilization Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the FARC-EP dissidents, and organized crime groups, according to the Public Defender’s Office.

That agency, in the document “Dynamic of Forced Recruitment of Boys, Girls, and Adolescents in Colombia; Challenges for Public Policy of Prevention”, issued in 2020, concluded that it will not be possible to progress in the protection of children and avoid their being involved in the conflict if the public policies of prevention are not part of national and territorial strategies.

The agency also believed that in order to protect boys and girls, it’s necessary to pursue and dismantle the illegal armed groups, attack their financing methods, and prosecute the commanders and members that are involved in forced recruitment.

The JEP is doing its part, but after the signing of the Peace Agreement, the children are still being affected by recruitment. The Colombian government must undertake the measures that are necessary, not just to investigate and make reparations to those who were recruited, but also to avoid having more boys and girls made into victims.

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