[Marxism] FARC recruits indigenous youth

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 7 07:00:42 MDT 2009


Colombia rebel groups recruiting indigenous youths
A recent study found that 64% were 14 or younger when recruited, an 
expert on armed groups says. Many, eager to escape poverty and 
isolation, become prime targets for guerrilla recruiters.

By Chris Kraul
October 7, 2009

Reporting from 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 

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 

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.

A few days after Jerson was interviewed last month, rebels attacked the 
town and briefly took up positions in the school where he had spoken 
with The Times, firing at the police station before army troops arrived 
in helicopters. None of the 1,000 children who attend the school were hurt.

"They're always around and they have a better image than the army, which 
only comes up here to bother people," Jerson said of the FARC presence.

With help from the United Nations and a Dutch social group called IKV 
Pax Christi, ACIN has begun a program called "Come Home" to reintegrate 
young ex-rebels into the community with education and economic support. 
About 60 former guerrillas from the Toribio area are participating, and 
an additional 250 would join if the program had more resources, ACIN 
officials said.

The FARC usually does not allow desertions but tolerates the 
participation of demilitarized youths in the ACIN program in part 
because the guerrillas are seeking good relations with the indigenous 
community, officials said.

Julian said the ACIN program helped him finance the construction of a 
small house and has paid him a small monthly stipend. His goal is to 
become a computer technician.

"I'm thinking only about life now, not war," he said.

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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