Young people living on Colombia’s Pacific coast, the country’s main cocaine-producing region, are at risk of being recruited into the conflict — if not by guerrilla groups, then by drug gangs. Their mothers try to save them, but it is not easy amid pervasive violence and in the absence of rule of law.
[See the complete special report by VerdadAbierta.com in Spanish here.]
The day before yesterday Señora F began to cry. She had woken up penniless. Her neighbor, who is just as poor as her, told her not to cry and gave her 500 pesos [about 25 cents]. She bought a few rolls of bread, but it was difficult to swallow them without anything to drink. She shares her laments in the sweet cadence of the people of the Colombian Pacific. She and her four grandsons first came from their cocoa plot in Magüi-Payan several years ago, after her daughter was murdered because of a mix-up: some guerrillas confused her with someone of the same name, and killed her.
Today, however, Señora F is happy. She proudly shows visitors the certificate and medal that her 16-year-old grandson brought home. He won them on the soccer field where he trains in Cali, where a recruiter took interest in him after seeing him score four goals in a school soccer game. He’s not on television yet, but if things go well, the family will be set.
Señora F’s neighborhood, like many others in Tumaco, Colombia’s second largest Pacific port city, spills out beyond the land. Wooden homes are supported by twisted stilts stuck into the garbage, mangroves and muddy sediment of the sea. They are held together only by the goodwill and infinite patience with which their residents wait for something to change. On the streets paved with crushed coconut shells run ragged children, barefoot and smiling.
One man, who stands out for his suspicious demeanor and sturdy boots, pretends to buy something at the store, while looking sideways at the journalists who visit the area. People get nervous. A lady signals for the reporters to leave. At the boundary of the neighborhood, there are two armed men standing guard.
It’s the closest one can come to seeing the other type of recruiters of Tumaco’s youth, those who also take them to training camps and who eventually will also cause them to appear on TV. With these recruiters, however, the young men and women will not learn to do bicycle kicks or score Olympic goals, as Señora F’s grandson may with his trainers in Cali. When the criminals take them, local young people will be trained as informers, prostitutes and hit men, and if they are able to quash their the conscience quickly enough, their medal will be a motorcycle or a rifle.
A teacher with smooth skin and sad eyes who works in another district — and who was so scared that she would not allow her interview to be recorded — says that recruiters take two or three boys a week. No one else has the actual figures because the enlistment is secret, and the ban on talking about it is imposed by terror. Among the local boys, recruiters prefer the more serious and silent types, as well as the strongest, the poorest and those who have suffered the most, preferably between 12 and 14 years old. The younger they are, the more easily manipulated they are. When it comes to the girls, they always seek out the most beautiful.
Militias of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group and members of the Rastrojos — a criminal gang with a nationwide presence — have established control over shantytown neighborhoods of Tumaco such as Viento Libre, Panama, Nuevo Horizonte and Los Angeles-California, most of which are located in comunas (districts) four and five of this city of 161,000 inhabitants. They make their power known, walking around openly armed, imposing curfews and other rules on defenseless people, extorting small-scale vendors, or asking children to join their cause, which is usually defined only in vague terms. They tell them that in this life there is only misery, that just for running an errand they can earn enough for a pair of jeans or a cell phone, that they must rebel against their neglect, that they will have an income, a weapon; they’ll be someone, and be respected.
Tumaco is not the only place in Colombia where guerrillas and criminal gangs forcibly recruit youths. All along the Pacific coast, from Ecuador up to Panama, across the eastern border with Venezuela, in the Eastern Plains, and in the neighborhoods of major cities, armed groups draw minors into their wars because it is easy to manipulate, indoctrinate and abuse them, and to put them on the front lines. They recruit minors in 20 of Colombia’s 32 provinces, according to the Ombudsman’s records. This year, a controversial study on the subject, “Like Sheep Among Wolves,” found that there are 18,000 children in the ranks of the insurgency and organized crime. Other experts maintain that this figure is not accurate, and that the true number is a third of this. What experts do agree on is that Tumaco is a hotspot for such recruitment, perhaps the worst in the country.
A Million-Dollar Industry
As much as guerrillas and bandits couch their causes in lofty rhetoric to attract young people, the main business in Tumaco is drug trafficking. This municipality in Nariño province, which forms the southwestern corner of Colombia, is the country’s largest producer of coca leaf and the largest exporter of cocaine.
Coca became increasingly important in the region began a decade ago, when aerial spraying of coca crops in the neighboring provinces of Putumayo and Caqueta forced drug traffickers to open new areas of production in Nariño. This policy of mass fumigation in those remote departments, devised by the governments of Colombia and the United States under a program known as Plan Colombia, went wrong. Not only did it fail to end coca production, and shift violence to once peaceful Nariño, but the move was beneficial to drug trafficking organizations, bringing down costs by moving them closer to the sea. It also made it easier to export cocaine without being seen, since the coast there is wild and winding, with dozens of mangrove-lined estuaries that flow to the sea providing safe transit routes for the drug.
Tumaco produces about 27 metric tons of cocaine annually, according to the latest estimate, made by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2010. Taking into account only cocaine sales within Colombia, the business is worth about $180 million a year. This is two and half times larger than the entire budget of the city. The profits from the sale of this cocaine on the streets of the United States are 12 times greater.
However, of this million-dollar industry Tumaco’s youths are left only with its violent proceeds. In Tumaco, 58 children of 1,000 live births die before their first birthday, when the nationwide figure for Colombia is 16 per 1,000. And the rate of congenital syphilis in the city, 15.23 per 1,000, is seven times higher than the national average (2.6 per 1,000). In 2011, hospitals in the area recorded five cases of girls infected with Hepatitis B, and 95 cases of children, between 10 and 14 years of age, severely beaten or abused by their parents and stepparents.
Just six out of every 10 young people continue their studies through high school, largely because they must help their families put food on the table. There are few job opportunities; at best one can work as a moto-taxi driver, shop assistant, water carrier or fisherman. There are many opportunities, however, to be gunned down. One in five murder victims in Tumaco in 2011 was between 15 and 19 years old, according to statistics released by the municipality’s health secretariat this year.
Because violence did not reach this island of black sand beaches and blue sea until less than a decade ago, people are not born prepared for it, as they are elsewhere in Colombia. “They have not had time to process all this violence that has arisen in recent years,” says a psychologist who treats youths. Fear is a constant companion for them. The fear of talking too much, of falling in love with someone from the wrong neighborhood, of attracting someone’s eye and of being taken away by them.
The teacher, who has spent 30 years attending to children in Tumaco, says that sometimes at recess armed men will approach, and students will fall back to the other end of the courtyard. “The bad guys, teacher, the bad guys are here,” they stutter with horror.
Recently, five men with guns tried to make off with a 10th grade student outside of the local Merca Z supermarket. Trembling, the boy managed to send a text message: “Tell the teacher that they are taking me.” Soon after, the police arrived and he was able to escape. But the next day, the thugs came for him at school, and he had to flee to Ecuador, which lies just three hours away by boat. His friends, who the armed men had photographed, also fled. They knew they could be blamed for his bold escape.
Another young man who had just finished his military service was targeted by the armed group and also had to flee. Five brothers who lived with their aunt left as well, without warning. One of them, overwhelmed by the situation, insisted that God did not love him. And a chubby-cheeked 14-year-old girl, who lived in a house where drugs were sold, simply stopped showing up to school one day. Months later, the schoolteacher saw her on the dusty street, sporting high heels and make-up, almost like a disguise.
“Even the most decent, well-behaved boys, the most intelligent, have fallen victim,” the teacher says, and explains that in their cramped homes they dream of nice houses and new clothes. “They join armed groups for any reason, or even just as a sign of protest because the government has never paid attention to them.”
The psychologist handled a case where a mother was able to get an armed group to release her son after they had taken him. But when he returned home, “it was like living in a prison in his own home, afraid of being discovered, afraid that they might take him again, afraid of being killed,” he says. “He became paralyzed, unable to walk physically. Fortunately he slowly recovered and can walk now. But it has been an ordeal for the mother.”
The fear of being forcibly recruited into armed groups also damages friendships and romantic relationships. The dictionary lists fear as synonymous with distrust, suspicion and apprehension. What if this young man wants to woo her in order to get her to join a criminal group? What if this new friend gets him into trouble when he asks him to deliver a package? “Friendships have been damaged because young people do not have the freedom to trust their peers, to walk freely in the streets as they did before,” says the psychologist.
The only certainty that children can count on is that of poverty and misery, community leader Antonio says with a dose of dark humor, adding that “young people have no one to help them to live with dignity.” One young man agrees, saying that he feels like he “lives under the the weight of constant insecurity,” like a black cloud that follows him around town and prevents him from even imagining a better future.
A woman who works as a community activist has had to deal with many such cases, like that of a close friend who found her three children — a 14-year-old girl and two boys ages 16 and 18 — being targeted, and had to leave suddenly for Bogota. Another friend of hers, who lived in the country and had a pretty daughter, lost her to the guerrillas. That was seven years ago, and she was never heard from again. The son of one Señora G joined the army, as it was the only way he could think of to stay clear of criminals.
“When your son is old enough to carry a gun, they ‘invite’ him to join the armed group,” says Sister Gaby, a Catholic nun from Germany, who along with a handful of clergy members know the neighborhoods of Tumaco because they have spent decades helping people improve their lives there. “If he refuses, the whole family is at risk.” With girls it is different; their brothers are approached at gunpoint and told that they must either give up their sisters for recruitment or leave.
Police Everywhere, but Little Protection
The powerlessness of her situation brings Señora G to tears. Her eldest son enlisted in the army to save himself, and another, who was also being recruited, she sent in the middle of the night to a relative she barely knew in Cali. Why didn’t she go to the authorities for protection? They are not absent from the municipality. On almost every block of La Playa avenue crossing Tumaco stands an armed policeman, and the airport is virtually a military base, with camouflage-painted helicopters flying overhead back and forth all day to carry out operations in the countryside.
There are 7,000 soldiers and police in Tumaco, says General Mario Valencia, commander of Joint Task Force Pegaso. This means that there is a one security official for every 23 residents, an overwhelming ratio compared with any Colombian city. In the capital, Bogota, for instance, there is one for every 400 residents. Tumaco is one of 14 areas chosen by the national government to undergo a three year Consolidation Plan, with US military support. The national daily El Tiempo reported last July that in this municipality the Defense Ministry launched a special counter-narcotics strategy that seeks to accelerate the aims of the Consolidation Plan: take control of territory and then bring in government investment in infrastructure and services.
But while there are some who appreciate the efforts of security forces, most have little trust in the them. Thus, police can spend hours posted at the entrances to neighborhoods like La Ciudadela or Viento Libre, yet still not control what happens inside them. There is a reason for this. A lot of money flows through the area, enough to infiltrate and corrupt law enforcement officers. Almost all those interviewed said that when reporting a crime to authorities, nobody is sure if they are speaking to the enemy; some learned this hard way. One person said that just two days after he reported to the police that he was being targeted for recruitment, criminals found out about it and threatened him. Another said that the police responded by making such a scene that the whole neighborhood realized who had made the complaint.
In the city, being a policeman comes with great risk. Last February a homemade bomb placed at a police station killed four police and wounded 74 others, policemen and civilians alike; and in June, in the neighborhood of Nuevo Milenio, two officers were killed by snipers. The authorities’ heavy-handed response to both instances failed to generate more trust in the police, and, on the contrary, it caused most people to distance themselves further.
After the murder of the police officers in Nuevo Milenio, the commander alleged over the radio that the residents of the neighborhood were protecting the criminals, thus offending the entire community. The neighborhood threw a party to respond to the claims of the police and stress that they were neither in favor of violence, nor against the rule of law. The locals have also noted how quickly the destroyed police station was rebuilt, while the neighboring houses still lie in ruins.
It doesn’t help that the former police chief of Nariño himself, Colonel William Montezuma, was arrested in 2011 on charges that he had links to paramilitary groups while he was police chief in the province of Norte de Santander. Two commanders identified him as an accomplice, but he claimed that that the accusations were false and was released.
The armed forces sponsor regular youth recreation days, and according to General Valencia, the five bases in the province warn parents not to neglect their children, to monitor their friends and not leave them alone. These are hollow words in a place where most children live with only their mother, and she has to work in order to put food on the table. The army has rescued several children. One 14-year-old girl had already been tasked with detonating explosives. By law, they must be handed over to the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) which finds them a temporary home while they are sent to Transitional Center in Cali or Bogota to receive psychological care and social assistance.
So far in 2012, 14 children under the age of 18 have left armed groups in and around Tumaco. Some were rescued by the security forces in the course of military operations. Others managed to escape on their own. A 15-year-old girl, “M,” spent two years with the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Her brother escaped from the group and they took her in retaliation. She was tasked with fetching wood and assisting in cooking duties. Another 14-year-old girl, “P,” says that she was deceived. They told her she could go to one of the camps to visit a cousin, but when she wanted to leave, they wouldn’t let her. “L,” a 15-year-old boy, said he became a guerrilla in order to avenge the death of his father. In order to keep their identities anonymous, Colombian law prohibits sharing any details of these children’s lives. It is known, however, that the three are living in foster homes, as poor as the households they were taken from, and are waiting to be transferred.
The welfare officials, many of whom are political appointees, carry out their bureaucratic duty. A public defense attorney tells a foster mother that she will take charge of a 17-year-old former guerrilla, and relays how many forms and stamps she must obtain to formalize her guardianship. Coldly, she says not to trust these young men, that they are liars.
Those who are familiar with their problems have more faith in these young people. Catholic volunteers and other religious leaders work with as many youths as they can. They have them participate in theater, sports activities, teach them how to think, how to talk, how to surf the Internet. “I feel a little at peace with myself, as I no longer feel so vulnerable to the armed groups, because I am more aware about what will become of my life if I join them, and of the damage that I could do to my community and society,” says “J,” a young man who participates in a theater with his friends, led by a young German woman studying theology who lives in the same neighborhood.
A local leader from a neighborhood known as Familias en Accion, in association of mothers from Tumaco’s roughest neighborhoods led by retired teacher Mireya Oviedo, is seeking funding to build a community center where children can play and study while their parents are at work, in order to protect them after school. So far she has not been able to find any willing donors.
Tumaco’s deputy mayor, Hernan Cortes, is himself the product of local Afro-Colombian organizations, which have become a new alternative to the traditional political bosses, who are corrupt and deeply linked to the drug trade. Cortes says that a project has begun in two neighborhoods to provide education and employment to 250 youths. But it is only just beginning.
They all know that the problem can only be addressed through profound changes. If young people could have access to a good education, decent housing, employment opportunities and safe recreation areas it would be much harder for criminals to recruit them. “As a strong state presence is established in areas regained by the military, we will be able to say that we are creating spaces that truly permit people to change their tendency towards illegal activity,” General Valencia says with conviction.
However, the military effort is more visible than the civil one. Ample and sufficient roads, public utilities, housing, parks, playgrounds and decent schools are lacking. The government has promised social investment for decades, and it is hard for people to believe that this time it is serious about it.
Until this planned social development arrives, few seem interested in coming up with immediate remedies to prevent the recruitment of children for crime and war. The efforts of religious organizations, teachers and some youth groups to bring peace barely cover a few hundred young people in Tumaco.
“It’s important, in a town where everyone is silent with fear, that we create spaces where youth can reclaim places to talk, to laugh and play, where they are also citizens, where they can be someone, and not just drown in suffering,” Gaby says, explaining that a revolution in education could be possible if enough effort was made.
The authorities haven’t developed a concrete action plan to directly respond to the ongoing forced recruitment either. At-risk youths do not know where to turn. Teachers can’t help them either. Security forces aren’t capable of responding, and at times put families who report the crime at risk. National officials show little interest in taking on the problem.
Parents, especially mothers, must cope as they can, sending their children away in secret, risking the lives of their sons and daughters as well as their own. And if they cannot send them away, nothing can prevent their children from getting caught in the grip of violence. They are destined to repeat history, and in just a few years they too will be recruiting the next generation of children.
[See the complete special report by VerdadAbierta.com in Spanish here.]