By Natalia Romero Peñuela and Camilo Alzate González,

EL ESPECTADOR, March 22, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Colombia+20 is describing two recent cases of forced recruitment, one at the hands of the dissidents in Amazonas Department and the other by the AGC in Chocó. Experts and humanitarian organizations say that virtual education and the worsening of poverty have contributed to the increase of this phenomenon during the pandemic.

Patricia* appears smiling in her recent photographs, taken between July and August of last year. It was just in those days that her home has seen no trace of her.

The four images seem to have been taken on the same day, because she is wearing the same blouse. In the first picture, you can see her traveling in a boat along with a much older man with a little goatee and a mustache, wearing gold chains, and in the background bursts the majesty of a river in the Amazon jungle. In the second photo you can still see the river, but in the gathering dusk, the horizon is already dark. Patricia continues to smile, and on the man you can see some green camouflage chest protectors that he wasn’t wearing before. In the third picture, you seen them embracing under a hut with a thatched roof, both of them looking at the camera with solemn faces.

And then the last photograph. In this one you only see Patricia with the water’s muddy current and the dock behind, where six field knapsacks and several uniforms of the dissident group that recruited her are lying. Patricia was 16 years old; she liked to sing along with her friends and she was going to high school in a remote settlement in Amazonas, where her parents had moved from Meta many years ago.

“We don’t know if she was forced, or if it was her own decision; it’s just that she went,” says her brother Mauricio, adding that one day Patricia came home with a Xiaomi 19 cell phone. He says that the man who “fell in love with her” had given it to her “either to fool her or to attract her to him.” The family thought it was very strange, “as she was working at a store, and she said she had just been paid.”

In the last week of July of 2021, Patricia had confessed to someone, during a religious service, that she was afraid because she “had been summoned”. The next day she said she had to turn in some homework, since because of the pandemic, she hadn’t been going to classes in person, but instead was studying from guides. To turn it in, she allegedly had to cross to the other side of the river to get to the school. “She crossed over and never came back,” recalls her brother in the sad story he told to Colombia+20. “She didn’t take anything along, she went with the clothes she had on, and the cell phone.”

Patricia’s case was one of the six that the Public Defender of Amazonas learned of at the end of last year. They were reported in the Early Alert of September 22, 2021. In the midst of a dispute for control of the drug trafficking routes, a group of the so-called dissidents who call themselves the Carolina Ramírez First Front expanded their dominion toward the low basins of the Putumayo and Caquetá Rivers. “That illegal armed group has transited and spent the night close to some communities all along the Caquetá Rivers and in the jurisdiction of the La Pedrera, an area that isn’t part of any municipality,” states the Alert.

Amazonas has turned into a rearguard for the dissidents since 2016, when a number of organizations of the former FARC left the peace process. Later on, in January of 2017, the Carolina Ramírez Front called together the inhabitants all along the Caquetá River to announce that they would not be taking part in the Peace Agreement. This has been documented in another report by the Public Defender, warning ever since about the risk to the 10,966 inhabitants near the Caquetá and Apaporis Rivers.

On February 15, 2020, a month before the beginning of the health emergency, the dissidents pressed for the departure of all of the officials of the National Parks agency who were not indigenous people. In those territories, that meant expelling the only government presence. Then came the pandemic and the confinement that closed schools and colleges.

“There’s no use approaching it like one simple act of victimization; just the re-arming of those groups and the return of the conflict to the Caquetá River basin. You have to connect forced recruitment with the closing of schools and colleges because of Covid-19,” states environmentalist Felipe Chica Jiménez, who traveled the area with humanitarian assistance projects during 2021.

“The closings generated a situation where at least 21,098 children in the Department of Amazonas were out of school and away from that protective environment,” explains Chica Jiménez,” and so they were more exposed to the armed actors.”

Along the same lines, psychologist Juan Pablo Fayad, an expert consultant on the subject, pointed out that in the regions where there is very little government presence, recruitment is more persistent. He clarified that “The only thing that changed the tendencies toward recruitment radically was the peace negotiations,” as the cases diminished all over the country.

In Amazonas, the Public Defender knew about shocking situations like the one where a child only nine years old was part of an illegal group in Puerto Santander. Even though the statistics talk about six confirmed cases, the people living there insist that there were at least 25 as early as the middle of 2021, the majority of those in Boricada, a settlement upstream on the Caquetá River. There youngsters from several communities were recruited when they went to a gathering that was supposed to be a football championship.

According to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), there is a “high level of undercounting, because of fearfulness and the failure of agencies and guarantees for the families of these victims, so they don’t file complaints,” a phenomenon that is repeated in the scattered jungle territories in this country.

The larger part of Amazonas is under a legal concept referred to as “area not part of a municipality”. That implies that there is no municipal jurisdiction, nor any local institutions, only the national government. “The agencies say that they are carrying out activities to avoid recruiting, but they only do it in Leticia, not in the places where it’s actually going on,” complains an official of an international organization that works in the department.

“The armed actors have changed their manner of recruiting with the local residents and the indigenous communities,” explains the official, adding, “They break down the community organizations that belong to the indigenous people, and they encourage the consumption of alcohol and psychoactive substances by the young people (. . .) The traditional authorities have been able to reach verbal agreements with them to show respect and not connect with the young people, but they never respect those agreements.”

Days after Patricia disappeared, somebody got in touch with Mauricio: “Your sister has sent you her cell phone so you can keep it for her,” he was told. “A friend told me that she had been seen near Araracuara,” he says. He filed a complaint with the Police, and he was threatened for doing that. “When I opened the phone, it was unblocked, so you could see the photos.” Ever since then, he doesn’t know anything more about his sister.

“They’re looking for me.”

“You never want to go with the armed guys,” says Francisco•, a short indigenous kid, thin and with weatherbeaten skin. On the day he was recruited, he was 19 years old. He’s talking with Colombia+20, scared to death, in a house made of concrete blocks, just a few meters from a river in Chocó, where he fled for his life after the Colombian Army captured him and later let him go.

Francisco was recruited by the paramilitaries of the AGC, or the Clan del Golfo, in the middle of getting drunk in the jungle of Chocó.

On a day in Holy Week in 2019, Francisco was drinking viche[1] with his father and a leader of the community, after several days of sawing in a settlement, a two-day trip on the river from a village that was closer to basic services. Of the 850,000 pesos (roughly USD $224) he had earned from the wood, he only had left “what he would send his girlfriend”. He had been with her for five years and had two children, and with the cleats he had to buy “for football”, he didn’t even have 100 pesos (about a quarter) left. It had all gone for “drinks and cigars”.

In the morning he had seen a boat going down the river carrying a dead body, a sign that the paramilitaries were around. “That afternoon we started drinking and in a little while they came around and were asking us what we were doing, if we were drinking, and there were any drinks,” he recalls. They were dressed like anybody, but carrying rifles.

Later on there was a conversation that seemed confusing to him. “I had a younger sister at that time; her husband killed her recently. A paramilitary liked her looks, and started telling my father that he would pay him money for her.” He offered two million pesos (roughly USD $525) and later he upped it to three (roughly USD $790). She was 14 at the time. “My father wouldn’t accept it; later they sat down to drink with us, and after a while, they offered to buy drinks,” recounts Francisco. They left the father alone, bought more viche and kept on drinking, he got drunk, and that’s all he remembers.

The next memories are blurred images. Francisco jumped onto a boat with the motor up, asking himself what he had done. With his tongue kind of tangled up, he asked them to let him go, but they said no. “We got to a commander and I really felt lost. I asked them again to let me go and they said they couldn’t. So I was left there to work with them.”

Since 2019, the Public Defender has been alerting about the extreme risk caused by the expansion of the AGC or Clan del Golfo after the departure of the FARC from the region, as well as the repositioning of the ELN’s Western Battle Front. Among other risks, he foresaw the  forced recruitment and instrumentalization of children and adolescents, as well as the increase in confrontation, and the contamination of the countryside with land mines that limited mobility, especially for the indigenous communities of Medio and Bajo Atrato.

In 2021, the Public Defender documented the way in which the AGC was attracting children and young people “by buying them sports equipment and organizing events,” and how the ethnic authorities were looking for strategies to prevent this scourge, as the “the armed groups took advantage of the schools being closed, and the few options the young people had for the use of their free time, to recruit them.”

Consulted for this article, the Public Defender, Carlos Camargo, and the President’s Adviser for Human Rights, Jéfferson Mena, stressed their speedy issuance of the public policy for prevention of recruitment. It has the objective of generating protective surroundings, reducing all of the forms of violence against children, and of guaranteeing their rights.

“In the framework of his participation in the Operating Committee for the Laying Down of Arms, the Public Defender learned between 2018 and April 2022, of a total of 212 cases of children released; there were 85 in 2018, 84 in 2019, 92 in 2020, and 51 in 2021,” they reported. Besides that, the adviser added that “between 1999 and 2021, the program of special attention in the ICBF (Colombian Institute for Family Welfare) had attended a total of 7,111 boys, girls, and adolescents who had escaped or been released by the illegal armed groups.”

Francisco was with them more than ten days and nights, with the sun and the water, with the same clothes he had on when he got drunk and left the settlement. It was ten days before they gave him a change of clothes, but it was only a couple of hours before they gave him a rifle and showed him how to shoot it, although he says he never killed anybody. “They have their killers, their extortionists, everybody has his own job. As I knew how to run a motorboat, I was the messenger. They told me to take this and that, food, money, rifles, people, and I took them” he remembers.

He did that for two and a half years. At the beginning, he cried when it was his turn to stand guard, and he asked God how he had gotten mixed up in this.

He didn’t kill, but he saw killing. “There was a kid just 15 years old and they said he belonged to the Mexicanos gang and they smashed his head open and I had to watch it. I was shaking,” he remembers, looking down at the ground. “I won’t deny it, when they gave me money, I spent it, but when they didn’t, I still had to take the messages. I went in without asking permission, grabbed what there was to grab, and got out. They didn’t say anything. What were they going to say?

He was surprised that he saw hardly any Afro-Colombian or indigenous people in the group; instead there were people from Córdoba and “pure farm boys”, as they say in Chocó for people that aren’t from Choco.

All of it was an immense contradiction. He couldn’t see either his girlfriend or his children. She was pregnant by somebody else and, afraid of his reaction, she went far away. He didn’t see his mother for more than a year. And he didn’t know about the death of his sister until three months after it happened.

But he ate pretty well while he was there: “There was rice with meat, sausage, beans, everything; it was good, except when there was a mission somewhere else and they ran out of food.  Then we just ate your basic fresh bananas,” he recalls. He earned a fixed wage of 1,300,000 pesos (roughly USD $342) for driving the boat, even though the majority of those that patrolled earned a little less. It was a fate of forced stability.

Francisco says that he wanted to leave. “I got another girlfriend, and we had a child. I wanted to be on the alert and every time I saw my mother she would say that I ought to get out,” but he was afraid that an attempt to escape would get him killed. Until one day, when he was captured by the Army. He joined a program for re-insertion and they let him go with “a whole lot of promises that still have not been carried out.”

He’s still kind of scared. Music can be heard outside of his house. A child comes in and out occasionally, and every time he opens the door, the silence invades the place. “Are they looking for me,” Francisco whispers, “I’ve heard they are going around here offering something like 30 million pesos (roughly USD $8,000) for my head

Because of that, he doesn’t dare return to his village; he doesn’t want to accuse or charge anybody, just to work and save. “I’d like to finish high school because I was in the sixth year, and if there’s a way, I would keep on studying so I could quit this work and earn a government salary,” he confesses before he laughs shyly, but for now, I’m just eating and sleeping inside, while I wait for something to happen.

Many causes that are hard to solve

“The undercount is a potential concern that worsens the risk of recruitment,” says the Public Defender, Carlos Camargo. Even so, the Early Alert System in his agency identified, between 2017 and 2022, 193 situations of risk related to these events of victimization.

The statistics vary among the different agencies. The ICBF registered 139 cases in 2020, and 61 in 2021. So far in 2022, the Public Defender has issued five alerts of risk of recruitment that are concentrated in 57 municipalities and the Capital District. For Jéfferson Mena, “the only ones responsible for recruitment are the illegal groups.” But, like the Public Defender, he admits that there are factors that increase the risk. Some of those are made worse by the pandemic, like the confinement, the school closings, and the limited capacities of the schools and other protective environments.

*Some of the names and places were changed.

[1] Viche is a home-brewed alcoholic drink made from sugar cane. It’s popular on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Among indigenous people, it’s often used as a ceremonial intoxicant.

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