The FARC announced that they would no longer recruit any combatants under the age of 17. Previously, the FARC officially recruited minors as young as 15 and there is plenty of evidence of children as young as 12 or 13 entering their ranks.
Near the bottom of the Miami Herald article
is this quote:
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said that of the 17,345 guerrillas who demobilized between 2012 and 2014 a full 8,799 — or 51 percent — said they were recruited while they were still minors.
I've seen similar numbers showing that around half of those recruited were minors, and that number has increased significantly in recent years. However, the demobilization numbers didn't look correct to me (I'm going to give Pinzon the benefit of the doubt and guess he misstated the years or was misheard by the reporter).
Fortunately, the Colombia Ministry of Defense has a security statistics document
on their website.
The Colombian government registered 3,839 demobilizations from 2012-2014. Those are members of the FARC or ELN who turned themselves in to government forces and said they wanted to demobilize. The military also claims they detained or captured 8,635 FARC or ELN members during that time period and killed 1,076.
That's 13,550 combatants who have been "neutralized" (to use the Colombian military's term) in the past three years. It's a startling number because that number is higher than the combined estimated strength of the two groups right now (probably 9,000 combatants for the FARC and 3,000 for the ELN). That means:
- There is a very high turnover rate within the groups. A significant percentage of the combatants are relatively new (and, arguably, the groups are recruiting minors to fill the ranks of those they have lost because minors are easier to coerce into the group and easier to control and prevent from deserting once they are in).
- There are people who are demobilizing or being captured who claim to be members of the FARC/ELN who are not.
- Everyone is underestimating the size of the FARC and ELN and the groups are larger than claimed.
- The Colombian military is artificially boosting their statistics.
I would guess all four of those points are true to some extent.
Point one is almost certainly true and the main explanation, though the turnover rate cannot be high enough (over 100% in three years) to explain the full number of captured and demobilized. On point two, there may be some criminals who are captured and see a benefit in being counted as a guerrilla, hoping to fall under the terms of the peace deal. On point three, there may be some smaller groups (criminal or ideological) out there who claim to be members of the FARC or ELN but don't actually fall under the command structure of the groups. Point four is troubling if true, whether it occurs at the field level or command level, but probably can't account for more than 10-20% of the numbers even if it is occurring.
Back to the original quote, 17,000 could be the number of FARC combatants who demobilized in the past 10 years. That is close to accurate according to this document. It is also, when you remember the FARC only had 20,000 members at their peak (around the year 2000), an enormous blow to the organization and a challenge for the government. It means the Colombian government is currently dealing with more individually demobilized FARC combatants than will fall under the demobilization process that will hopefully occur following the current peace negotiations. There are also thousands of detained FARC combatants who may have some right to a demobilization process.
These numbers matter when you return to the original point: Over 50% of the FARC's current membership was recruited when they were minors. Many (more than 30%) are still under 18. This is a specific demobilization and reintegration challenge for the Colombian government and the FARC. While the average age of the negotiators in Cuba is probably mid to late 50's, thousands of the combatants who will demobilize are minors and nearly all of the combatants are young men and women in their teens and 20's.
When the peace talks began in August 2012 I wrote
Start thinking about the child soldier issue early. There are thousands of child combatants among the FARC ranks, some as young as 12-14 years old. While the images of peace negotiations will be old men sitting at a table talking politics, the people who need to disarm and demobilize are the minors who care little about politics and are unprepared for civilian life. The older members of the FARC leadership cannot be allowed to dodge or ignore this issue. The manner and conditions in which the FARC's child soldiers demobilize will be key points for lasting peace in Colombia.
That remains true today. I'm glad the FARC made their announcement on stopping the recruitment of children under 17, but it's barely the first step. The peace talks are progressing on the topics that matter to the old ideologues (land reform, drug policy, political integration), but they haven't touched on this question of how the sides are going to demobilize thousands of teenage combatants and prepare them for civilian life. Colombia's future peace depends on getting that issue correct.