BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia’s government must increase efforts to stop armed groups from recruiting children, as it pushes for peace and surrender deals with rebels and crime gangs, think tank International Crisis Group said on Friday, warning recruitment is rising.
Colombian leftist President Gustavo Petro has made “total peace” – an end to almost six decades of conflict which have killed hundreds of thousands – a key policy for his administration.
While violence has declined following ceasefires with four illegal armed groups, such organizations are using this breathing space to further cement themselves in communities across the country, Crisis Group said in a report, including via recruitment of minors.
“By all indications, recruitment has increased since the announcement of the total peace policy,” Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Crisis Group analyst for Colombia, told Reuters.
Recruiting minors allows armed groups to boost their military might and curbs resistance from the childrens’ families and friends, who hope they may one day return, the report said.
Children as young as 12 are “being sent to front lines of combat,” the report said, citing interviews with residents, rights groups and military officers.
The office of the government’s high commissioner for peace did not respond to a request for comment.
More than 16,000 minors were recruited by armed groups in Colombia between 1985 and 2019, according to a report last year from the country’s truth commission.
But the commission said that number was likely low and estimated the real figure could be higher than 40,000.
Colombia’s child welfare agency (ICBF) has documented 1,166 cases of child recruitment since 2016, but Crisis Group said in the report that figure was also likely an undercount.
The ICBF said in response to the report that it is aware of a sustained increase in the recruitment of minors in recent years and saw a 141% uptick between 2021 and 2022 in the need for its recruitment intervention program.
At least 70 minors were recovered by Colombia’s military during the first five months of Petro’s presidency, the report added.