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Colombia Conflict Drawing In More Children

Human Rights Watch reports that 11,000 underage combatants -- as young as 12 -- are fighting for rival militias in the civil war.

September 19, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

BOGOTA, Colombia — A prominent human rights group estimated Thursday that 11,000 children are fighting in this nation's civil war, serving as messengers, foot soldiers and even executioners for leftist rebel bands as well as right-wing paramilitary armies.

The figure, released in a study by New York-based Human Rights Watch, is one of the highest for child combatants in any current conflict and marks a dramatic increase since the late 1990s.

Researchers said armed groups were recruiting children as young as 12 or 13, who often join up to escape domestic violence or hunger and then are expected to participate in atrocities. Deserters, if caught, often are killed, researchers said.

"This is a wake-up call, a catalyst to fight against the most vicious, heinous crimes ... targeting the most vulnerable people," former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who serves on the Human Rights Watch board, said at a Bogota news conference.

The group's regional director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said the number of underage combatants in Colombia had doubled in the last five or six years.

He said about 80% were members of the country's two main leftist guerrilla groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army. The rebels' paramilitary foes, which are holding peace talks with the government, accounted for the other 20%.

Human Rights Watch based its calculations on statistics gathered by Colombia's human rights ombudsman and on personal accounts by dozens of young deserters.

"Some told us they had seen mutilations of prisoners with machetes and chain saws," Vivanco said.

Girls faced an additional risk of sexual manipulation, he added. "Many male commanders use their power to form sexual liaisons with underage girls. And girls as young as 12 are forced to use contraception."

In one account published in the report, a FARC deserter using the pseudonym Angela said she had been ordered to execute a friend who "got into trouble for sleeping around."

"I closed my eyes and fired the gun, but I didn't hit her. So I shot again. I had to bury her and put dirt on top of her," the testimony read. "The commander said: 'You did very well, even though you started to cry. You'll have to do this again many more times, and you'll have to learn not to cry.' "

The report came several days after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused some human rights groups of abetting "terrorists" and interfering with his clampdown on leftist guerrillas.

The remarks angered rights advocates, who said the president's condemnation could endanger their lives.

Vivanco, who was scheduled to meet with Uribe on Thursday afternoon, called the remarks "unfortunate." He also urged Colombian lawmakers to reject legislation the government has introduced in Congress that would allow rebels and paramilitary fighters to avoid jail time for war crimes, providing they demobilized, confessed to their misdeeds and offered some kind of compensation.

The United Nations characterizes child combatants as armed youths younger than 18. The International Criminal Code set forth by the Rome Treaty in 1998 establishes the recruitment of children who are under the age of 15 as a war crime.

Locked in a decades-old conflict that claims nearly 4,000 lives a year, Colombia is the third-largest recipient of aid from the United States.

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