A Colombian tribunal that investigates war crimes on Tuesday said the country’s largest guerrilla group recruited at least 18,600 children into its ranks between 1996 and 2016, when it made peace with the government.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace said it will call on former leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to testify as it continues to investigate the forced recruitment of children into the now-demobilized guerrilla army.
The estimate published by the peace tribunal comes from 31 databases compiled by government investigators, human rights groups and relatives of children who were recruited into the guerrilla group. It surpasses a previous estimate by Colombia’s Attorney General which said in 2016 that the FARC had forcibly recruited 11,500 children into its ranks.
The issue of forced recruitment has been a controversial topic in Colombia, where wounds from the four-decade long conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government are still fresh.
In an interview last year with local newspaper El Tiempo, former FARC commander Rodrigo Londono denied the guerrillas had a policy of recruiting children under 15. Londono said many 15, 16 and 17 year-olds joined the guerrilla group “voluntarily” and that in rural Colombia people over 15 were already considered to be adults.
Under Colombian law however only people 18 and over are defined as adults.
According to the peace tribunal, the FARC recruited at least 5,600 children 14 and under in a span of two decades.
The tribunal will continue its investigation by summoning 26 former leaders of the FARC’s Eastern Block, which is believed to have been heavily involved in the recruitment of minors.
Under the 2016 peace deal, former fighters who collaborate with the peace tribunal can avoid prison time if judges determine they told the truth about war crimes. But the tribunal can order them to provide reparations to victims. Those who don’t collaborate and are found guilty can be barred from holding public offices and face 20-year prison sentences.
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