Growing Up as Guerrillas

Show of Strength: FARC soldiers march in February in rebel-held southern Colombia. (Photo: AP)

An amateur video of guerrillas preparing and carrying out a jungle attack, seized in a raid by security troops and aired on national television, has shocked even war-weary Bogotá with its scenes of children making missiles from cooking-gas cylinders and calmly digging mass graves for comrades.

At least 6,000 children are believed to be fighting in Colombia’s 37-year insurgency, with 70 attacks this year. A third of the rebels are female.

The 12-minute grainy tape, with a soundtrack of gunshots and birdsong, shows Marxist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as they blow up a mayor’s office and police barracks in an unidentified southern town, rob a bank, then tuck into an après-battle barbecue. Laughter and whoops of victory end the session. “This is a demonstration of ruthlessness and cruelty,” said the interior minister, Armando Estrada. “It’s scary because these people could one day be governing this country.”

The footage, believed to be a training video, shows guerrillas, some as young as 11, in camouflage and toying with their submachine guns as a commander reads off items to bring to the attack: grenades, explosives, mortars, and propane missiles. One lad playfully sticks out his tongue at the camera and then shows off the submachine gun he has strapped on his back like a school satchel.

The guerrillas stage marching drills and twirl their weapons smartly as they march. The number of young boys and girls among the ranks is startling. Afterward, they sit in front of a tattered map, awaiting orders.

The attack was in central Tolima province, the army believes, but there are too few landmarks to verify the exact spot. After the bank is demolished, a rebel grins beside a heap of cash, then five police officers offering to surrender are pinned to the floor, submachine guns at their throats. Their fate is unknown. Town residents help guerrillas set up mortar launchers and plant explosives in the streets.

After the attack, teenage rebels, boys and girls, are shown splashing in an idyllic jungle stream. Then an underage burial squad, most wearing brown FARC T-shirts, shovels corpses into hastily dug graves. Rough estimates put deaths in battles during the past decade at 40,000, many civilians.

A FARC commander contacted by phone in the rebel demilitarized zone in southern Colombia said he could not comment on the tape, which was broadcast on Thursday by the network RCN after being leaked by the attorney general’s office. “We go to bed at 8 o’clock at night and this was aired after that,” said Simon Trinidad.

Colombian authorities have issued 1,300 arrest warrants for the guerrillas, clearly identifying them in the tape of the attack. Crimes cited range from subversion and kidnapping to terrorism and murder.

In spite of pledging not to recruit fighters under 15, and even releasing 60 youngsters last year to widespread publicity, FARC leaders have no shortage of volunteer child soldiers. The power and glamor of the rebels attract many homeless youngsters. The international charity Save the Children says modern automatic hand weapons are so light that children can use them easily. Underage volunteers are welcomed by some rebels and by the paramilitary squadrons newly declared terrorists by the United States.

Child soldiers often act as scouts or paramedics and are considered expendable, easier to manipulate, and less costly to feed. Some leaders prefer children because they can be bullied into risky missions an adult would never accept.
Colombia’s National Department of Statistics recently released figures on rebel fighters under 18. Some 34 percent volunteer out of fascination for guerrilla weapons and uniforms, and an equal percentage join from poverty just to eat. Some 17 percent were born into the guerrillas, and 15 percent have been recruited against their will. Some 18 percent of the youngsters interviewed said they had killed at least once, and 40 percent had wounded someone.