TORIBIO, COLOMBIA — Craving adventure and escape from his broken home, Jerson enlisted with leftist guerrillas when he was in his early teens. He saw it as a way to emulate Che Guevara and bring social justice to this impoverished region of Colombia.
Plus the rebels offered him new clothes and a cellphone.
So three years ago the indigenous youth found himself in the Sixth Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which patrols the mountains of Cauca state. Two months later, chafing under strict rules and horrified by the killing of a childhood friend and fellow recruit by Colombian soldiers, he fled the rebel ranks.
"I was just a mule forced to carry water to the camps, look for firewood and move things to keep a step ahead of the army. All you do is obey orders," said Jerson, now a 17-year-old high school student in Toribio, a town 150 miles southwest of Bogota, the capital. "But I couldn't forget how my friend was killed. I knew death was waiting for me if I stayed."
Studies by Colombia's public defender and independent researchers indicate that the FARC and other armed groups increasingly are focusing their recruiting efforts on youths like Jerson, who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisal. Their success underscores the difficulty of ending the country's decades-long violence.
Based on interviews with 8,000 rebels who have been captured or have surrendered since 2002, a recent study found that 64% were 14 or younger when recruited, said Natalia Springer, a dean at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota and an expert on children and armed groups.
The FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers see young people as prime candidates for recruitment because of their poverty, poor education opportunities and isolation, Springer said.
Even the military at times presses youths to serve as informants or spies, human rights groups say.
"The kids are attracted by the arms, the uniforms, the adventure and the money they are offered," Springer said in an interview in Bogota. "But they don't have the intellectual tools or maturity to make a decision by themselves. They are seduced."
Young people living on Indian reservations, which provide indigenous Colombians with a degree of autonomy, are increasingly targeted by recruiters.
Springer said nearly half of all those joining armed groups have indigenous backgrounds.
"Armed groups don't just recruit anyone anywhere," she said. "They take a strategic approach in targeting vulnerable communities."
"It's a general problem not limited to rebels or paramilitary groups," said an official with the Assn. of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca, a regional advocacy group known by its Spanish initials, ACIN. "The army and police are using us as informants and militia members."
He spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The thousands of minors now believed to be fighting with armed groups put Colombia in the top tier of countries beset by the problem, which includes Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Colombian public defender's office calls it "a grave human rights crisis," and UNICEF has said that protecting youths is key to ending the nation's four-decade civil war.
Youths from the estimated 100,000 transient families dedicated to seasonal harvesting of coca leaves, coffee, cotton and other crops in Colombia are also vulnerable to recruitment. Many are illiterate, homeless and prone to accept offers of an education, or of food when crops fail, Springer said.
Toribio, an isolated farming town 90 minutes' drive up a winding mountain road east of the Pan-American Highway, is ripe recruiting ground for the FARC. The rebels, who maintain camps nearby, move cocaine through here to Pacific ports to the west and rely on numerous informants in the town.
"The guerrillas circulate easily here," said the official with ACIN. "They can walk right up to people's houses, talk to the youths, offer economic resources that the families don't have."
Julian, 19, an indigenous Toribio resident who joined the FARC three years ago, said the rebels recruit youths here because "people in the country can withstand hardship better than the white people down in the valley. We are more resistant and ready to risk everything."
But Julian, who enlisted to escape family problems, fled the FARC after only three weeks. He also requested that his last name not be used for fear of retribution.
"Life with the rebels is hard," he said. "You don't sleep, you're always hungry and if you make a mistake, they bring you before a war council. The penalties can be doing more guard duty or going before a firing squad."
Jerson and Julian said it was easy to join because FARC informants and militia members are everywhere in the Toribio area and are active in the recruitment process.