Colombia: Forced to join the drug war

Status: 04.06.2022 11:41

The peace deal with the FARC guerrillas has not ended the violence in Colombia. New groups have been formed to fight for smuggling routes for drugs and weapons – and forcibly recruit children and young people.

By Anne Herrberg, ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro, currently Colombia

Alejandra drew a picture. A young man with his back to the door, another waiting outside with a motorcycle, he has a gun. In the second part you see bombs, red spots and a woman crying.

“The picture is called: My mother is crying,” she explains. “Because her son joins the guerrilla. She knows it will end badly. But she can not stop him because the armed groups are threatening her.”

Alejandra did not invent it. The twelve-year-old himself experienced stories like this. She is from Norte del Cauca, one of the most conflict-ridden regions in Colombia.

“It’s war again”

The road in Alejandra’s village of Toez winds through a green, hilly landscape that keeps popping letters on fences and house walls, “Farc-EP” is spray-painted on them, or “Comando Dagoberto Ramos”. There are young men on motorcycles at a crossroads examining those who pass by. Here in Colombia’s Andean Cordillera, armed groups continue to fight for control of coca plantations and smuggling routes for drugs and weapons, and nothing has changed since the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas five years ago.

“Yes, there was a peace process,” says Rosa Padro, who welcomes us blindly to Toez. “But there was only a brief moment of silence. The state has not kept its promises, now new groups have been formed and the war is back, and it is worse than before.” Rosa is part of the Guardia Indigena, a respected native protection force for the Nasa people who rely on dialogue rather than weapons – and yet have been trapped between the fronts for years.

The guerrillas here used to have a certain political ideology, they accepted us and our territory. The new groups do not have a single command, we do not know who to talk to. And the biggest sufferers are the kids.

According to the organization of Nasa’s indigenous peoples, ACIN, 270 children and young people have been forcibly recruited in the Norte del Cauca alone since 2019 – the youngest only twelve or 13 years old. The situation across the country has worsened during the pandemic, as confirmed by the International Crisis Group.

Courses for school children

In the self-governing school in Toez, Rosa Padro shouts: “Guardia” – group of guards. “As a Guardi, we are strong,” say about two dozen children.

Rosa and a colleague have been holding courses here for almost a year to explain the dangers of recruitment and to strengthen children’s self-confidence. Three youths from her group were killed in a clash between armed groups and the military earlier this year. There is no trace of others, they were abducted to regions in the south, it reads. Rosa also cares about her own son, eleven-year-old Oscar Mauricio.

There are children who come from somewhere else or are older, and then they pretend to be our friends. Often they are already associated with the guerrilla or other groups. Then they say how fat it is there and that you get money, motorcycles or cars. But then the reality is completely different.

“We sit between all fronts”

On this day, the children have to take pictures of what is going through their heads when it comes to the topic of forced recruitment, which is then discussed. A group of 16-year-olds sit apart, engulfed by their cell phones. Rosa’s matchmate Laura Medina is keeping a close eye on her. “We’re trying to see the signals,” she explains. “I ask, for example, how much the criminal groups pay a child. One answered with a certain number. That is a warning.”

Children who come from difficult families are particularly receptive to the promises, Rosa says. Left alone, sometimes abused. She also believes this is a consequence of the great poverty in the region.

Everything around here is militarized. The state has promised help to the rural population and better education to the youth, but nothing has happened. Many farmers here grow coca because it is the only way to make money here. The road you came across is a major drug and arms smuggling route. It is full of military control. Why are they not doing anything? Because everyone is sitting at the same table, everyone has their share in the business. And we sit between all fronts.

Many activists were killed

Rosa and Laura also regularly receive threats. More than 1,000 social activists like you have been killed since the peace agreement was signed in 2016. And that, in turn, worries Oscar Mauricio, Rosa’s eleven-year-old son.

“My dad and mom are leaders, so they often have to go out and attend meetings,” he says. It makes him sad. “But I know I have to support them because they are fighting for our territory and our community.”

After the painting course, everyone goes to the river. There is a cleansing ritual, then we play and gossip. The children need to relax.

Rosa and the Nasa community are now hoping for a change in the upcoming election. Finally, a different policy is needed, they say, a policy for the people in the conflict zones.

Colombia: Forced to join the drug war

Anne Herrberg, ARD Rio de Janeiro, June 4, 2022 at 10:36

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