BOGOTÁ – Jesús Martínez has money on his mind: his monthly budget of $250, his $75 rent and the $7,500 he will soon receive from the government.
Eighteen-year-old Martínez, which is not his real name, never touched a peso until he was 16 and fled the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the Farc, the largest of Colombia’s three Communist-inspired insurgent groups.
He worries about paying rent, but he’s afraid of dealing with the $7,500 reparation the government awards to all former child soldiers demobilized from the three groups, after they turn 18.
“I don’t know what I will do with the money, but I’m scared to get it,” Martínez said. “A lot of kids just spend it on liquor, guns.” He expects to receive the money within a year of his 18th birthday, which was last November, but the delivery can vary on a case-by-case basis.
Martínez looks city slick: the lanky teenager sharpens his baby face with spiked hair and a leather jacket. But he’s a product of Colombia’s countryside, the main territory of the country’s nearly 50-year-old internal armed conflict with the Farc, which has renounced one method of raising money – kidnapping – but remains enmeshed in the cocaine trade, say scholars, international human rights groups and policy groups. (After the Farc renounced kidnapping, it abducted a French journalist, who was then released.)
This year once again, the Farc and the National Liberation Army, a smaller insurgency in Colombia, made it on the annual United Nations’ “list of shame,” which names parties who use children in armed conflict. In July, the UN Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict, run by Germany through 2012, took up the matter informally with Colombia, which is also a member of the council through December. A spokesman for the German mission to the UN said that Colombia was actively involved in negotiating the conclusions of the working group but did not elaborate except to say it could take weeks.
One conclusion in a UN report in April on children and armed conflict said that progress on the situation in Colombia was hampered by the government’s tight restrictions against allowing contact between the UN and “nonstate armed groups,” among other problems.
Martínez entered the Farc when he was 5 years old. His father, a commander in the group, died in combat, and his 14-year-old mother died in childbirth with the boy. Another Farc commander eventually put the orphaned child in the ranks, alongside 14,000 or so children who have been involved in the war. They are used as combatants, informants, mine clearers, sex slaves, cooks and coca planters, the UN says.
Recruitment of child soldiers has increased by the Farc as government efforts to decimate its ranks have intensified in the last few years. The Farc now uses schools to promote their activities and systematic measures like taking surveys of village families to enlist children.
“It’s the only thing I knew in my life,” Martínez said of the Farc, adding that they were “my family.”
He escaped to the mountains when he was 16, compelled by his dream to be a soccer star but also by the “combat, suffering, hunger and illness.””
Colombia’s family welfare agency, Bienestar Familiar, assumes guardianship of all demobilized minors, placing them in state-run centers among juvenile delinquents, or with foster families. A reunion with biological families is rarely a choice, given the renewed risk of recruitment into an armed group or death for having fled one. Although no official recidivism rates are available, Stella Duque, the president of Taller de Vida (Workshop of Life), a nonprofit group that offers programs to former child soldiers, suggested that about 15 percent of the children she has worked with get involved with armed groups – but not necessarily the Farc – after they turn 18.
A select group of demobilized teenagers in Bogotá finds wiggle room in tightly structured government programs, which prohibit cellphone use. Taller de Vida, which is financed by international organizations like Madre and War Child, offers theater, dance and fine-arts workshops to about 60 youths living in the country’s capital.
Martínez participates in the therapeutic workshops, which Guillermo Alvarez Moreno, a Colombian anthropologist, says help to steer demobilized youths away from the promise and power that many believe that guns carry. Alvarez led a recently concluded Taller de Vida macramé crafts workshop that started in December.
“The majority of them think, ‘I want to be like Pablo Escobar,’ ” Alvarez said of the notorious Colombian drug trafficking cartel leader who died in 1993.
Martínez considers how his life might be easier if he returned to the Farc; he still believes in its Communist ideology, he says, and in the jungle he wouldn’t have to pay rent. He says fighting comes naturally to him and he relishes talking about the training he went through, like forced hunger bouts. But he thinks he would be killed if he went back.
He wants to start his own business and raise a family in Bogotá, where he landed after more than a year wandering the country on his own after leaving the Farc.
Adjusting to living with foster families – Martínez has gone through three – has been rocky. He moved out of his last home shortly after turning 18, when his monthly government allowance increased to $250 from about $30.
In January, he moved to the coastal city of Santa Marta to live with a girlfriend, but that lasted about a month without financial support, which was dependent on his school and therapy attendance. So he returned to Bogotá.
He hasn’t found a job yet. Like his peers in the program, he has not received any formal vocational training.
“I’m not doing very well, but I like how it is,” Martínez said, now residing with yet another foster family and two other former child soldiers. All his life, he said, people – the Farc, Bienestar Familiar – “have been telling me you have to do something. It’s tiring.”
Despite the tremendous ups and downs, Martínez plans to graduate high school next year. By then he hopes to have a better idea of how to handle the $7,500 coming his way.
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Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She reports mostly on UN headquarters news when she is not working abroad. In the last several years, she has reported from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. Lieberman is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For more information, go to www.amydlieberman.com