Mainly covers the period June 1998 to April 2001 as well as including some earlier information.

  • Population:
    – Total: 41,564,000
    – Under-18s: 16,235,000
  • Government armed forces:
    – Active: 153,000
    – Reserves: 60,700
  • Paramilitary: 95,000
  • Compulsory recruitment age: 18
  • Voluntary recruitment age: 18
  • Voting age (government elections): 18
  • Child soldiers: indicated in armed opposition groups and paramilitaries – estimated number 14,000410
  • CRC-OP-AC: signed 6 September 2000, supports "straight-18" position
  • Other treaties ratified: CRC; GC/AP/I+II
  • Children as young as eight-years-old are fighting with guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia. Children are often recruited forcibly and face harsh punishments, including death if they attempt to desert. The government has ended the recruitment of under-18s and demobilised those remaining in its armed forces, but continues to enlist students in military schools from age 15.


Armed conflict has been ongoing for almost 50 years involving government armed forces, guerrillas since the 1960s, and paramilitary groups originally set up by the government during the 1980s and now tacitly supported. The conflict is related to land and control of coca, mining and oil resources. All sides in the conflict have committed human rights abuses and political violence has increased dramatically in the country. The main armed opposition group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), controls the despeje, a zone the size of Switzerland from which the military has withdrawn. Peace talks continue between the government and the FARC but have yet to yield any concrete advances. Despite efforts to resume negotiations between the ELN and government, obstacles still remain.

In 2000, the Colombian government launched a six-year plan for 'Peace, Prosperity and Strengthening of the State' known as 'Plan Colombia'. The US government pledged a multi-billion dollar military assistance package in support. There are grave concerns, both within and outside Colombia, that Plan Colombia may lead to an increase in human rights violations, including child recruitment.


National Recruitment Legislation

Article 216 of the 1991 Constitution states that: "All Colombian citizens are obliged to take up arms when public need mandates it in order to defend national independence and the public institutions. The law will determine the conditions which at all times qualify an individual for exemption from military service and the benefits for service in them".411

According to Law 48/93, "All Colombian men are obliged to define their military situation from the date they achieve the majority of age, with the exception of the students of the "bachillerato" (baccalaureate), who will define when they obtain their school baccalaureate certificate. The military obligations of Colombians end when they turn 50" (article 10).412

On 23 December 1999, the government adopted Law 548 amending Law 418 of 1997 to establish that "Those below the age of 18 will not be incorporated into the ranks to serve military service. The incorporation of students of eleventh grade, below this age that, according to Law 48 of 1993, should be chosen to serve such service, will be postponed until they reach the referred age." (Article 2)413 This was reinforced by internal police Instructivo No. 8 of January 19 2000 which stated that: "no minors will be incorporated for the military service in the National Police".414

Bachillerato students are able to choose to do the military service when they turn 18 or when they finish their studies, subject to proof that they are attached to a university (Law 548 of 1999 and law 642 of 2001).415 The law that regulates this issue establishes different modes of military service, according to the number of places and the needs of the forces: "bachiller soldier", 12 months; regular soldier, between 12 and 24 months; auxiliary of "bachiller soldier", 12 months.416

Article 14 of Law 418, known as "Public Order" ( Ley de Orden Público) , approved by the President on 26 December 1997 criminalises the recruitment of under-18s as follows: "Any person who recruits minors as members of rebel or self-defence groups, forces them to join such groups or receives them into such groups and any persons who give them military training for that purpose shall be liable to three to five years' imprisonment. Members of outlaw armed organizations who recruit young persons under eighteen (18) years of age into said organizations shall not be entitled to the legal benefits for which this Act provides."417 Law 418 also established that minors (less than 18 years old) should not join the army even on a voluntary basis.418

National Recruitment Practice

Before December 2000, approximately 16,000 under-18s were part of the Colombian armed forces. After protests from relatives, the government said under-18s would only be assigned office duties and only sent to conflict areas once they had turned 18. This was not always observed, however, and youths were still at risk since they were considered legitimate military targets by remaining in military installations and wearing military uniforms. There were also reports of ill-treatment of bachilleres.

On 20 December 1999, the Colombian Army discharged 618 persons under the age of 18 from the Army and more than 200 others from other forces. After Law 548 was adopted, there have been two incorporations of auxiliary "bachilleres", but none of these included people under the age of 18.419

Military Training and Military Schools

In 2000, there were officially 32 military schools in Colombia. While the majority of military schools set a 18 as the minimum age of entry, the minimum age for the 2001 intake for sub-officer training is 17 and officer training is 15.420 The minimum age to join the Escuela Militar de Cadetes General José María Córdova (Military Cadets School General José María Córdova) is 15 years of age.421 To join the Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla as a cadet the minimum age is 16.422 No information was available regarding the number of under-18s currently enrolled in such programs or whether they are members of the armed forces.


Children as young as 8 of both sexes are currently fighting as soldiers in the Colombian conflict.423 They are recruited, often forcibly, into the ranks of armed groups, paramilitaries and militias. Children under the age of 18 are used for many different tasks, including as combatants, for kidnapping, guarding hostages, as human shields, messengers, spies, sexual partners and as "mules" to transport arms and place bombs.424 It is likely that many of these children are also active in the production of coca, given the close links between groups that use children and the drug trade.425

The guerrillas refer to child soldiers as "little bees" for their agility and power to sting; the paramilitaries as "little bells" because they are deployed in front to draw fire, detect traps and serve as an early warning system. In the cities, child members of militias are called "little carts" because they ferry drugs and weapons without raising suspicion.

Armed opposition groups are estimated to include 4,000 children below the age of 18, with a third of them estimated to be girls. Right-wing paramilitaries and militias are estimated to include 3,000 children, some as young as eight years old. Urban militias, linked to various parties to the armed conflict are estimated to include approximately 7,000 children below 18 years of age.426 According to UNICEF's Colombia office, 80 % of the new armed groups' fronts are made up of women and children.427 In what is a worrying trend, increasing numbers of child soldiers are being "born into" armed groups because their parents are members. According to the People's Ombudsman Office, 20 per cent of all Colombian children directly or indirectly participate in the armed conflict.428

Between 1 January and 27 April 2001, the Colombian Army reported 53 cases of child soldiers; 24 were captured during military operations, while 29 were deserters; of these 19 were girls and 34 boys.429

In rural areas, families caught in the cross-fire often are forced to offer their children to guerrilla units in order to survive.430 In many areas children are taken by armed groups or paramilitaries as part or in lieu of taxes families must pay.431 According to press reports, families from the despeje, as well as from Arauca, Valle del Cauca, and Antioquia departments have fled their homes because guerrilla groups have tried to recruit their children forcibly. On 4 May 2000, a woman from Norte de Santander department, with the help of the Colombian military, delivered her 12-year-old son to the ICBF to protect him from the FARC, which was trying to recruit him forcibly.432

There are also many cases of so-called "voluntary" recruitment given the lack of other education and employment opportunities for boys and girls. Many join the guerillas, but mostly paramilitary groups, because they are promised a wage. Sometimes runaways join the armed groups as a result of family violence or losses; others want to 'defend' their families against attacks from the paramilitary.433 Interviews carried out with girl combatants who left armed groups during the 1990s indicate that they joined because they fell in love with guerrilla boys.434

Child combatants receive comprehensive though rapid military training (including in the use of weapons, manufacture of bombs and military strategy). Child soldiers are virtual prisoners of their commanders; punishments for infractions are often extremely harsh and sometimes involve death.

According to numerous reports, girls are frequently subjected to sexual abuse.435 The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has received reports of sexual abuse of girls serving in the ranks of the guerrillas and paramilitaries, generally by middle-ranking officers.436 The FARC operates a "sexual freedom" policy and there are reports of young girls being fitted with intra-uterine devices or given contraceptive injections. In one case a fifteen-year-old combatant who was killed was found to be pregnant.437 Cases of sexual slavery are common. The Roman Catholic Church documented one case of a 13-year-old girl who was recruited by the guerrillas and used for sex before a nun persuaded them to release her.438 Adolescent girls are often recruited for special missions, which involve them being forced to have sexual relations with government soldiers in order to get information from them.439

Reports indicate that there was an increase in children abandoning the ranks of the guerrillas during 2000 at great peril to their lives.440 Runaways are considered deserters and are often executed on the spot by the FARC and ELN.

Government Treatment of Suspected Child Soldiers

Colombia does not have legislation affording special legal status or treatment to child soldiers. Juvenile deserters and those who are captured are considered criminals.441 Children who are captured or surrender are sent for trial before a juvenile judge or to a judge ascribed to institutions for juvenile offenders.

According to information obtained by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, surrendered or captured child soldiers are often incorporated into the armed forces or detained in military installations instead of being presented before a judge to be tried. They often remain in uniform in military bases.442 The armed forces have forced former child guerrillas to appear before the press and to make statements, prepared by the armed forces, in order to discredit the guerrillas.443 There are also reports of the Army forcing captured child soldiers to find and deactivate landmines laid by armed groups, or to act as informants and guides.444

The Government's Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (Family Welfare Institute) opened the first home for former child soldiers in 2000.445 Places in these programs, however, are extremely limited and the majority of former child soldiers are placed with hardened juvenile delinquents in camps.

The People's Ombudsman Office indicated that between 1994 and 1996, 13 per cent of children who have been placed in such detention centres were killed by fellow inmates.446 Due to the security risks faced by former child soldiers, the locations of many re-integration programs are kept secret and many children change their name. This often leads to long delays before they can return to their families, if at all.

The involvement of children as combatants in the conflict has also placed other children at risk. On 15 August 2000, for instance, an army unit near Pueblo Rico, Antioquia, mistook a party of schoolchildren for a guerrilla unit and opened fire, killing six children aged between 6 and 10, and wounding six others.447


Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is the largest armed group in the country. It was established in the mid-1960s and originally espoused a Marxist ideology. The FARC advocates widespread reforms and re-distribution of wealth as outlined in its 10-point program.448 A large percentage of the FARC's income is derived from "taxes" imposed on drug operations in FARC-controlled regions, as well as kidnapping and extortion.449

In June 1999, the FARC pledged to the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict not to recruit children below the age of 15.450 More recently it has stated publicly that it does not recruit anyone under the age of 15 and that youngsters who have joined themselves are returned to their families.451

According to press reports, in April 2000 FARC military commander Jorge Briceño Suarez admitted that the FARC made regular use of child combatants.452 FARC leader, Manuel "Sure shot" Marulanda, told reporters when asked about calls for the group to stop enlisting minors: "They're going to stay in the ranks".453

The FARC reportedly announced in 2000 that all persons between the ages of 13 and 60 in the despeje zone are liable for military service with the guerrillas; families fleeing the zone reported that they were asked to surrender children to the FARC as of their 14th birthday. The Roman Catholic church reported that the FARC lured or forced hundreds of children into its ranks in the despeje zone and other areas under its control.454

In June 2000 the FARC reportedly recruited at least 37 youths, including minors, in the municipality of Puerto Rico in southern Meta department. According to one NGO, in Putumayo the FARC instigated compulsory service of males between the ages of 13 and 15 and was recruiting in high schools.455

The Colombia Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights continued to receive complaints during 2000 of the FARC continuing to recruit children under 15 years of age.456 The FARC persisted in this practice, in violation of their internal rules and in spite of the fact that they returned some children to their families in the despeje zone.457 Eight FARC guerrillas, all estimated to be between the ages of 13 and 15, were killed during a January 2000 attack on the town of El Castillo, Meta department.458 Footage of FARC child soldiers, in what is believed to be a training video, were aired on Colombian television in May 2001. The footage shows guerrillas, some as young as 11 making missiles and digging mass graves for dead guerrillas.459 In August 2000 members of the FARC reportedly killed a school rector in Meta department for criticizing the recruitment of his students.460

The FARC is also known for recruiting children in Venezuela where it conducts some activities. Parents have reportedly been paid US$600 a month for the recruitment of their child. In October 2000, Luz Celeste Gonzalez Aguilar, a 16-year-old Venezuelan national, surrendered to the Colombian Army after 6 years with the FARC. She confirmed reports of FARC recruitment of under-18 Venezuelan children.461 She had been serving with other Venezuelan youths under the age of 18, who had been recruited by a network operating in Venezuela.462

FARC activities have been reported also in Bolivia, Ecuador and Panama. There are concerns that the armed group might also recruit children from those countries or Colombian children displaced to other regions.

National Liberation Army (ELN)

The Ejército Nacional De Liberación – ELN (National Liberation Army) is the second largest guerilla group in Colombia. In 1987, it joined the FARC and other guerrilla groups to form a joint front called Coordinador Guerrillera Simón Bolivar.

On 15 June 1998, the ELN signed the Mainz "Heaven's Gate" agreement in which it committed itself not to recruit anyone under the age of 16 into its ranks.463 There are, however, consistent reports that the ELN continues to recruit children under the age of 15 into its ranks. In one earlier case from October 1997, the ELN attempted to use a nine-year-old child to deliver a bomb to a polling place in Cucuta.464


The Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC (United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia) is a right-wing paramilitary umbrella organization. It was formed in the early 1980s in response to kidnappings by guerrilla groups. Human rights activists claim the paramilitaries are responsible for most of the human rights abuses committed in Colombia. The paramilitaries allegedly fund their actions from the cultivation and trafficking of drugs.465

Although the Colombian government denies any links with paramilitary groups, numerous reports continue to be received of state officials directly participating in or turning a blind eye to paramilitary activities.466

Various sources indicate that 15 per cent of paramilitary groups are under 18 and in certain areas up to 50 per cent of some paramilitary units are children. Children as young as eight have been seen on patrol with paramilitaries.467

Paramilitary groups are reported to have resorted to forced recruitment. In May 2000, the Autodefensas Unidas del Sur del Casanare circulated leaflets in the rural area of Monterrey (Casanare) calling up young people living in the region for "compulsory military service". In October 2000, paramilitaries took away several youths in Puerto Gaitán (Meta) by force for military training468

Paramilitaries consider service compulsory for as long as two years. Families who refuse risk being considered sympathetic to armed opposition groups and attacked. According to the People's Ombudsman Office, girls are at particular risk, and a high level of sexual abuses by adult paramilitaries has been reported.469

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received reports of paramilitary groups offering money to children in poor neighborhoods or internally displaced camps to entice children to join their ranks. On 25 March 1998, journalists reported seeing a group of over 50 students, including 10 girls, leave their town to join the paramilitaries, tempted by the salaries they were offering despite attempts by fellow students and community leaders to dissuade them.470 In September 1997 members of the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urbá (ACCU) – part of the AUC umbrella group – recruited 50 under-18s during a single day by offering them money in Policarpa neighbourhood of Apartadó, Antioquia.


Urban militias emerged in Colombia in the 1980s. Some militias were independent and others received training and weapons from armed opposition or paramilitary groups.471 Indigenous people and Afro-descendants have been pressured by guerilla groups to form militias in areas previously under their control but re-taken by paramilitary groups, particularly in Valle and Cauca Departments.

It is estimated that some militia groups are comprised of 85 per cent children, a high proportion of these being kidnap victims.472

Militias are considered as good training grounds for future combatants473 and have been targeted as such by opposing groups.


Prevention and demobilization programs

In 1999, the ICBF established a special program to deal with the re-integration of former child combatants who have escaped or been captured. In addition, several other independent re-integration programs (for example, Alborada de Vida, Don Bosco) operate throughout the country. AFSC "Comite Andino de Servicios", the Colombian Program of Catholic Relief Services, and the Diocese of Granada are jointly undertaking a program of prevention and protection of children in the demilitarised zones.

High-level visits

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Mr Olara Otunnu, visited Colombia in June 1999. Government officials announced their intention to stop enlisting under-18s and the FARC committed itself not to recruit children under the age of 15. During his visit Mr Otunnu tried to ensure that "the protection and welfare of children are placed prominently on the peace agenda".474 The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Colombia in December 2000. Her report to the 57th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights called on all armed and paramilitary groups to stop the recruitment of children and demobilise those in their ranks.475

International standards

Colombia signed the CRC-OP-AC on 6 September 2000 and upholds the "straight-18" position.

When Colombia signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in January 1990 government made a declaration in which it considered that "while the minimum age of 15 years for taking part in armed conflicts, set forth in article 38 of the Convention, is the outcome of serious negotiations which reflect various legal, political and cultural systems in the world, it would have been preferable to fix that age at 18 years in accordance with the principles and norms prevailing in various regions and countries, including Colombia, for which reason the government, for the purposes of article 38 of the Convention, shall construe the age in question to be 18 years". The declaration referred only to "taking part in armed conflict" and did not mention recruitment. In depositing its instrument of ratification of the Convention in January 1991, the government entered a reservation to the provisions of these paragraphs, stating that the age referred to should be understood to be 18 years. When it withdrew its reservation on 26 June 1996, the Government of Colombia issued a political declaration stating that it would refrain from recruiting young people below the age of 18 into its armed forces or police for the purpose of taking a direct part in hostilities. In view of the declaration made when the reservation to the Convention was withdrawn, articles 13 (no longer valid) and 14 were added to Law 418.



412'2, Ministerio de Defensa Nacional Colombiana.

413 Ley No. 548 del 23 de dicimbre de 1999.

414 Information provided by fax by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Colombia to the CSC on the 2/03/01.

415 "Los jovenes bachilleres podran optar por prestar su servicio militar al cumplimiento de su mayoria de edad o cuando culminen sus estudios superiores, siempre que demuestren estar vinculados a un centro de educacion superior o tecnologico; de acuerdo a lo ordenado en la ley 548 de 1999 y la ley 642 de 2001."

416, Republica de Colombia, Ministerio de Defensa, Ejercito Nacional de Colombia, Direccion de Reclutamiento y Control de Reservas.

417 CRC/C/70/Add.5, 5/01/00 , paragraphs 409-419.

418 Boletin de Prensa "El Ejercito colombiano licencia a todos los menores de 18 anos de us filas", Unicef Colombia, 20/12/99. See also newspaper article: "Yo queria seguir en el ejercito".

419 Information provided by fax by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Colombia to the CSC on the 2/03/01.




423 Tercer Informe sobre la Situacion de los Derechos Humanos en Colomba, Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Organizacion de los Estados Americanos, OEA/Ser.L/V/II/102, 26 February 1999. See also: Salazar, Maria Cristina, "Consequences of armed conflict and internal displacement for children in Colombia,. Winnipeg Conference on War Affected Children, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Colombia, E/CN.4/2001/15, 8/02/01, and US State Department Report 2000.

424 Tercer Informe sobre la Situacion de los Derechos Humanos en Colomba, Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Organizacion de los Estados Americanos, OEA/Ser.L/V/II/102, 26/02/99. See also study be Defensoria del Pueblo, 1996-1998.

425 See: La Semana "Soldaditos de plomo,. 17-24 November 1997.

426, these figures have also been confirmed by reliable sources within Colombia who have asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

427 El Tiempo, "Me ensenaron a manejar armas en tres dias", 4 December 2000.

428 Statement of the People's Advocate to the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, Montevideo, Uruguay, 5-7 July 1999.

429 No cesa violencia contra los ninos de Colombia, 27/04/01.

430 "Rights-Colombia: Children of War", IPS, 12/03/99.

431 The Christian Science Monitor, Howard LaFranchi, "When war veterans are children,. 30/03/00.

432 US State Department Report 2000.

433 Salazar, Maria Cristina, "Consequences of armed conflict and internal displacement for children in Colombia,. Winnipeg Conference on War Affected Children.

434 Ibid.

435 See: US State Department Report 1997; See also: Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Colombia, E/CN.4/2001/15, 8/02/01.

436 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8/02/01, op cit.

437 No cesa violencia contra los ninos de Colombia, 27/04/01.

438 US State Department Report 2000.

439 Miami Herald, Tim Johnson, "Child Soldiers". 23/01/00.

440 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8/02/01, op cit.

441 UN Wire, Child Soldiers: Colombia attempts to rehabilitate ex-warriors, 31/03/00.

442 Tercer Informe sobre la Situacion de los Derechos Humanos en Colomba, Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Organizacion de los Estados Americanos, OEA/Ser.L/V/II/102, 26/02/99.

443 HRW, War without Quarter Colombia and Humanitarian Law, New York, 1998.

444 The Independent, Jan McGirk, "Recruits a young as eight fight for Colombian guerrillas", 19/11/99.

445 The Christian Science Monitor, 30/03/00, op cit.

446 HRW, War without Quarter Colombia and Humanitarian Law, New York, 1998.

447 Informe de organismos de Derechos Humanos sobre el crimen contra ninos de Pueblorrico. 15/08/00 (


449 Jane's Intelligence Review, June 2000.

450 Special representative of Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict concludes humanitarian mission to Colombia, Press Release HR/4418, 9/06/99.

451 BBC World Service, "Colombian army: FARC uses child soldiers. 1/12/00.

452 US State Department Report 2000.

453 Reuters, "Children .Cannon fodder in Colombia's war", 31/01/00.

454 US State Department Report 2000.

455 Ibid.

456 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8/02/01, op cit.

457 Ibid.

458 US State Department Report 2000.

459 The Independent, McGirk, Jan, "Brutality of child army fil shocks Colombia,. 2/05/01.

460 US State Department Report 2000.

461 El Nacional, Delgado, Eleonora "Venezolana desertora de las FARC era espia y experta en explosivos,. 20/10/00.

462 El Nacional, Eleonora Delgado, "15 adolescentes venezolanos militan en las FARC,. 22/10/00.

463 US State Department Report.

464 US State Department Report 1997.

465 Interview by Carlos Castano with magazine "Cambio. reported in

466 Informe Annual 2000. Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Organizacion de Estados Americanos. OEA/Ser./L/V/II.111, 16/04/01.

467 See: Defensoria del Pueblo, "El conflicto armado en Colombia y los menores de edad, Sistema de seguimiento y vigilancia – La ninez y sus derechos". Boletin 2, May 1996; 106th Congress Report, US Senate, 2nd Session 106 291, 11/05/00; US State Department Report 2000; and The Independent, Jan McGirk, "Recruits a young as eight fight for Colombian guerrillas", 19/11/99.

468 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8/02/01, op cit.

469 HRW, War without Quarter Colombia and Humanitarian Law, New York, 1998.

470 El Nuevo Heraldo, Marisol Gomez Giraldo, "Jovenes colombianos son reclutados para combatir guerrilleros", 25/03/98.

471 HRW, "Generation under fire: children and violence in Colombia", New York, 1994.

472 The Independent, Jan McGirk, "Recruits a young as eight fight for Colombian guerrillas", 19/11/99.

473 HRW, War without Quarter Colombia and Humanitarian Law, New York, 1998.

474 Special representative of Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict concludes humanitarian mission to Colombia, Press Release HR/4418, 9/06/99.

475 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8/02/01, op. cit.


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