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Recruiting children in Colombia

Child soldiers in Colombia is an issue still mostly overlooked, both inside and outside of the country. Natalia Springer - a woman on a mission - is probably Colombia’s most knowledgeable person when it comes to child soldiers.

Last modified: 24 Oct 2009 02:12
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Natalia Springer is a woman on a mission. I met her on a recent reporting trip to Colombia where I was working on a story about the surge in the recruitment of children into the Farc and other armed groups in Colombia. Springer’s name popped up in a few internet searches.
When we finally met in her office one afternoon at a Bogota university where she is the law school dean, it didn’t take long to figure out Springer is probably Colombia’s most knowledgeable person when it comes to child soldiers. She spent well over a year investigating the issue, and interviewing hundreds of guerilla commanders, children, and officials.
She puts it all together in a computer database, where at the click of a mouse button, she can zero in on various Colombian departments (or states) and pull up facts and figures, and even likely future trends of child recruitment in Colombia. Yes, she has created a model to predict where exactly recruitment might occur and when, which seems fairly revolutionary.
Springer was commissioned to perform the initial study of child soldiers in Colombia by a major international non-governmental organization. But when the Colombian government staunchly objected to some language in her initial, unpublished report, the organization backed down to pressure from the government and asked Springer to “soften” the report, according to her account of it all.
She refused, and walked away, but with the condition that she got to keep all the intellectual property rights to her research. She has since been putting it together on her own and will publish it soon. When it is published, and the world is able to see what I saw in her office, it will open up a whole new dimension into the issue of child recruitment in Colombia.
The Los Angeles Times has already picked up on Springer’s work in a recent article about her research. But child soldiers in Colombia is an issue still mostly overlooked, both inside and outside of Colombia.
In the story I did about child soldiers of Colombia, I used a short snippet from a very long interview with Springer. I felt in my story it was more important to give the children and families affected the platform to speak. However, I feel part of the purpose of this blog is to offer the reader a more extended version of powerful and penetrating interviews on important subjects.
So, below I have copied a translated version of my interview with Springer. If you care anything about children, you might find it both interesting and disturbing at the same time.
Gabriel Elizondo: “Does Colombia have a problem with the recruitment of children in illegal armed groups?”
Natalia Springer: “Colombia not only has a problem with recruitment of children, but also systematic and massive use of children and adolescence for the purposes of the armed conflict. And it’s an invisible problem. It is a problem from which all armed groups get benefits. And that means that we not only have children associated directly with combat - child solders - but we also have children who are combatants and administrators of information in their own communities and in their own homes. Children are a very important base of the conflict. And they are being used, and at the same time destroyed by the action of illegal armed groups. There is no doubt about it.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “When you say ‘children’ what ages are you talking about?”
Natalia Springer: “What we found was a systematic pattern across the Colombian territory from 6 years olds to 14 year olds. We believe that about 65% of all recruitment happens in this age group.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “Are these kids joining voluntarily or are they forced?”
Natalia Springer: “This is a very important question because the majority of these children told us they joined voluntarily. But this is false. Some say that children joined armed groups because they like weapons and uniforms. First of all, from the legal perspective there is no voluntary recruitment of children. This happens very much as a seduction of children. That is why many of these children say they go voluntarily, but there is proof that it is not voluntary. Once they are in, they can not quit or leave. And if they leave they are gambling on their own lives. So evidently, this is not voluntarily joining.
Gabriel Elizondo: “What jobs do they do once inside the armed groups?”
Natalia Springer: “Another proof this is not voluntary, is that they are obliged to the work specific tasks within the armed group. For instance, they are the first line in combat. Why? Because they are the first to die. They also install the land mines. Children in Colombia set up the land mines. Children in Colombia take care of the kidnapped. Children in Colombia have to perpetrate grave crimes. Why? Because this is part of their training of these children to make them commit very grave crimes so they lose their fear to kill and completely dissolve their moral system. So the crime of child recruitment is very grave because it should not be considered only a war crime. Because the way they pervert these children, it is a crime against humanity.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “In Colombia, is the situation getting better or worse?”
Natalia Springer: “What we found have been peaks in recruitment. During the 90’s, we saw a huge progression, or increase, that grew almost in a vertical proportion between 1998 and 2001. With the development of the first years of the democratic security (President Alvaro Uribe’s internal security programs), that started to fall. The children recruitment per se started to reduce, but there was an increase in the number of children doing intelligence work in the communities on behalf of illegal armed groups. Today what we see is an increase in child recruitment, with one special characteristic: Recruitment inside the cities. Before it was more concentrated in the countryside. Now we see how this is migrating towards the cities.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “A lot has been written lately about how the Farc is on its heels, having been devastated by Colombian military operations in recent years. How has this affected child recruitment in Colombia?”
Natalia Springer: “This is a very important phenomenon. As they are losing combatants, the Farc are looking for children to fill their ranks. Why? Because children have not established their sense of fear, and the measure of risk. This is something that happens in people after they turn 20 years old.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “How many children are we talking about here?”
Natalia Springer: “We do not know. Nobody knows that figure. We will have to physically count them to know, and that is impossible. We found by studying children that were captured or fled the guerilla or paramilitaries that of the ELN, 45% of those who joined the ELN entered as children. Forty three percent of children that enter the Farc do so as children. So we can imply that 45% of these armed groups are composed of children. These kids obviously grow up, and many of them leave the armed groups as adults. But they enter as children. The high commanders of the Farc, for example, entered the Farc as children at 6, 7, 9 and 11 years of age – the majority of them. So the current Farc leadership is made up of men, who, many of which entered as children.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “How many children are specifically in the Farc?”
Natalia Springer: “Official numbers say there are about 10,000 Farc fighters and 40% are children. But other people say there are about 20,000 Farc fighters, so it all depends on how many Farc fighters there really are to determine how many children there might be inside the Farc. And few people seem to have confirmed numbers on that.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “Is the problem confined mostly to the Farc, or other armed actors as well?”
Natalia Springer: “It is all of the armed groups outside of the law. All of them: Paramilitary, criminal bands, groups of hit men, gangs, Farc. All of those groups use children because they need them.” 
Gabriel Elizondo: “This is causing displacement, is it not?”
Natalia Springer: “Recruitment is not only a cause but a consequence of displacement. Entire families and communities are being displaced because armed groups are taking their children by force and with violence.
Gabriel Elizondo: You spoke to commanders in jail who recruited children. What did they say? Why do they do it? Was there any justification for it?
Natalia Springer: They have a very perverse discourse – paramilitary, guerilla, and other illegal groups. They claim this is almost a social service - to get children. They say, ‘We feed them. In their homes they would have died of hunger.’ Or they say, ‘Where they were they suffer a lot, with us they are in better condition.’ For girls they say that. ‘In the communities where they live they were obliged to get married and have children, with us they are in better condition. They have a weapon.’ It’s a very perverse discourse. They make children believe that because they give them a weapon, now they have authority. That they are important, that they are free, which is completely false. But after interviewing a few of the commanders, we realized that they do it for economic reasons. And that is number one, because children can not be used as informants or witnesses and the commanders know that. A commander told me, ‘if one of those children fall or is captured, the police can not even touch them.’
Gabriel Elizondo: “Indigenous children are recruited as well, right? Tell me about that dynamic?”
Natalia Springer: “A big proportion of those kids recruited are indigenous. They are the ones who can stand the difficult conditions in the jungle the most, because many come from the jungle. And they have no where to go back to because once they join the armed groups, they are expelled and rejected from their indigenous communities. They have no where to go. So they are a good target for recruitment.”
Gabriel Elizondo: “Is enough being done to solve the problem?”
Natalia Springer: “To be fair, this is something that the Colombian government is concerned with. But unfortunately, they are not doing what they need to do. And what they have done thus far has not worked. Or it has even worsened the situation. The state has also given up prosecuting those who perpetrate this crime, which now makes it an invisible crime.”