Spotlight: Gang and organized crime recruitment & use of minors
Historically, illegal armed groups (IAGs) in Colombia have made a regular practice of recruiting and using minors. Given the prevalence of criminal gangs and bacrims (criminal gangs that emerged out of the United Self-Defense Forces demobilization in 2006), past precedent suggests that, unfortunately, youth recruitment will likely persist in some form in the Colombian context, even after current peace negotiations conclude in Havana. Children have been tasked with roles such as look-outs, gathering intelligence, transportation, and various forms of labor; they have also been used as key protagonists to carry out torture, assassinations, and to transport and plant explosives. Within the framework of the armed conflict, they have also been sexually abused, trafficked, and prostituted.
This Spotlight reviews both the recruitment and use of minors in the Colombian and international contexts. In the Colombian case, children who are recruited by illegal armed groups tend to come from rural areas and become permanently involved with the group, thus breaking social and familial ties. Recruited children become part of a closed military regiment, have significant military training, may handle large weaponry, and may have direct combat experience. Although recruited children may have greater participation in registry and control activities, they have a complete loss of the exercise of their rights, individuality, and agency. On the other hand, children who are used by illegal armed groups tend to come from urban areas and are only involved with groups on a part-time basis, thus potentially maintaining their social and familial ties. Used children are part of an open regiment, have less military training, may or may not manage firearms, and have only indirect involvement with combat, if any. Children used by illegal armed groups have lesser participation in registry and control activities, and experience a partial loss of the exercise of their rights, individuality, and agency.1 While these are not hard and fast distinctions, do offer a useful frame of reference.
Following is an analysis of five international case studies of criminal gangs and organized crime syndicates. Among other commonalities, the included groups all use minors in their day-to-day operations and/or revenue-generating strategies. While street gangs, organized criminals, rebel insurgents, and extremist groups might differ in their structure, size, goals, and relationships with their contexts, they all must maintain and grow their membership: children are an important aspect of these efforts.