BOGOTA, Colombia—Colombian guerrillas are enticing Venezuelan children to become combatants through operations in hundreds of schools across border regions, where they talk to students and offer them free recreational activities and gifts, according to a new report from a Venezuelan NGO.
The practice is a growing and increasingly important strategy to recruit minors, of which at least 20,000 are currently at risk, violating national and international human rights regulations, Fundaredes director Javier Tarazona told The Epoch Times.
The growth of Colombian armed groups in Venezuela has become increasingly concerning for human rights observers, and is central to international discourse over the future of crisis-stricken Venezuela in recent months, with Colombian President Ivan Duque accusing Venezuelan regime leader Nicolas Maduro of harboring “narco-terrorists” who could destabilize the entire region.
Children are particularly vulnerable to being recruited into armed groups due to Venezuela’s acute economic crisis. Four million people have fled the country amid rampant hyperinflation and widespread shortages of basic goods, according to the U.N.
Fundaredes’ research focuses on migration issues caused by Venezuela’s economic and political crisis, but its latest report released on Sep. 23 denounces the growing presence of guerrillas in schools, where they are “indoctrinating” students with revolutionary communist ideology.
The National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and dissidents from the recently demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been identified in testimonies from teachers and students as carrying out the practice.
Through a foundation, Amigos de la Escuela, they are offering children toys, coloring books, and school items to entice students into the clutches of the armed rebels, as well as giving them propaganda leaflets, and having them join talks and recreational activities, Fundaredes says.
Particularly concerning is a census conducted by the ELN at the houses of all students in four border states during this summer’s school vacations, the NGO’s director says. The census allowed the terrorist group to gather information such as their ages, genders, and when children attend class, which could help the group groom the more than 20,000 students into becoming child combatants.
“[We are most concerned] by the capacity with which they can influence the local population by presenting themselves as ‘good’ people offering help and aid,” said Tarazona.
By offering toy race cars, play dolls, and soccer balls, which the childrens’ parents can’t afford, and promising regular hot meals, they are taking advantage of the country’s economic crisis to lure them into a life of organized crime, the report says. According to Tarazona, Maduro and his regime are “partners and complicit” in the practice.
The report says that 325 schools were contacted by the armed groups in 2019, up from 214 in 2018.
“Not just as officials, but as parents, we are worried about the presence of these groups,” said Gustavo Rangel, a former city official for the municipality of San Cristóbal, which borders Colombia. “Beyond not taking away their future decision of who they want to become and to what they want to belong to, [the children] need to be able to grow up in a free environment with an education that is not contaminated by political groups.”
Armed groups originating in Colombia have significantly expanded their operations in Venezuela in recent years.
The presence of ex-FARC members alone has been confirmed in at least eight states in Venezuela in 2019, says Insight Crime, a research unit based in Medellín, Colombia, that studies organized crime.
The FARC formally demobilized following Colombia’s peace agreement in 2016, but not all of its members put down their weapons.
Having previously served as a safe haven where authorities turn a blind eye to their illicit activities such as illegal mining, drug trafficking, and extortion, FARC dissidents are now “being welcomed with open arms,” in Venezuela, Insight Crime says.
Although Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have publicly displayed ideological affinities with the leftist group, Maduro has denied giving them support or sanctuary.
Colombia has called for further international sanctions on Venezuela to weaken the regime’s support for armed groups.
Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have risen since Juan Guaidó—the leader of Venezuela’s congress who declared himself interim president in January—was recognized by Colombia and more than 50 other nations, including the United States, as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
Progress in resolving Venezuela’s political impasse appears to have stalled in recent weeks, as negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó to find a peaceful solution have broken down.