Armed groups in Colombia are still recruiting children, NGOs say

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Illegal armed groups are still recruiting children in Colombia, subjecting them to sexual abuse and using them as cannon fodder in armed conflict, humanitarian groups said on Thursday.

“In Colombia the recruiting and use of minors is a common and systemic practice which changes to meet the new demands of the armed conflict,” said Olga Silva of Humanidad Vigente, which published a report along with Oxfam and Benposta Nacion de Muchachos. The groups form part of the observatory for the protection of rights and welfare of children (OPROB).

Violence declined after a 2016 peace deal the Andean country signed with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending that group’s part in more than five decades of conflict that killed more than 260,000 people.

The deal allowed some 13,000 former rebels to rejoin society, yet the report noted that armed groups including dissidents of the FARC who rejected the accord are still recruiting children and adolescents.

“Threats, false promises of better conditions, the groups’ presence in schools and the absence or weakness of the government has led to thousands of children joining the ranks of armed groups,” Silva said.

Last week a report by Human Rights Watch said children as young as 12 were being recruited by armed groups in the east of the country.

According to OPROB, between 2017 and 2019 there were 311 cases of recruiting minors in five of Colombia’s 32 provinces. The National Liberation Army (ELN) accounted for the majority of cases, with 182, followed by FARC dissidents with 82.

“The study established that sexual violence is directly linked with the armed conflict, a situation that puts children who are used by armed groups at high risk,” the report said.

The investigation also decried the presence of a high number of Venezuelan minors working to produce coca, the main ingredient of cocaine, along Colombia’s border with Venezuela.

According to official numbers, between 1985 and 2019, more than 7,400 minors were victims of forced recruitment, while 16,249 were killed during the armed conflict.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by David Gregorio