Bogota, Colombia (NI) – One sunny Tuesday morning earlier this year in Medellín, Colombia, Luz Miriam Gómez Acevedo, mother of 2 and employee of the local transit authority, was walking to the metro station a few blocks from her house when a young guy appeared on the street, shot her several times, and disappeared in a taxi.
Medellín’s police chief would later confirm that Gómez Acevedo had turned herself in some 13 years ago after demobilizing from the Marxist guerrilla group ELN (National Liberation Army) and providing intelligence on ELN activities to local law enforcement.
She had started working for the metro 11 months before her murder, after receiving a work placement through Futuro para la Niñez, a social assistance programme for vulnerable citizens.
When news of Gómez’s murder appeared in the local daily El Colombiano, a few magnanimous commentators seized the occasion to moan about programmes like Futuro para la Niñez. They said that such programmes make it easier for ex-terrorists than law-abiding unemployed Colombians to find well-paid work.
It’s exactly that level of societal bitterness – not to mention fear for his life – that makes David Barreto (not his real name), put his back to the camera when he gives public interviews about his years as a child soldier in Colombia’s Marxist guerrilla army, the FARC.
After running away from home and his destitute parents to try his luck on the streets of Cali at age 7, David survived for years by begging and selling sweets on buses, until he decided to follow the lead of 3 of his 6 brothers and join the guerrillas.
He spent the next 3 years in the jungle, helping the FARC arrange kidnappings, in exchange for ransoms. At 14, he fled to Medellín after a botched surveillance operation and began to reintegrate into society.
Now a straight-backed 21-year-old with the uncompromising gaze of a survivor, David has completed a full reintegration process and works with vulnerable kids in Medellín.
With Colombia’s peace process slowly hiccupping along at the talks in Havana, Cuba, kids like him are now pouring into Colombia’s handful of Specialized Attention Centers (CAEs), which help rehabilitate child soldiers.
In late May, I visited the CAE that David himself graduated from, part of the Ciudad Don Bosco School in Medellín’s Comuna 7, where a hodgepodge of houses clings precariously to the side of a mountain.
Leah Danze, a Princeton in Latin America Fellow from Texas, works with the children in the child soldiers programme. A new group of some 60 children between the ages of 14 and 18 (more than a quarter of them girls) has just arrived at Ciudad Don Bosco, and for the vast majority of them, politics is of no interest whatsoever.
‘A lot of these kids didn’t even realize that the peace process was happening when they got here,’ Leah tells me. As in David’s case, for most of them it was extreme poverty and Colombia’s entirely inadequate social safety net that drove them into the arms of the FARC in the first place.
‘They talk to you a lot about Che [Guevara] in the guerrillas,’ David tells me. ‘Some of the guys get very serious about the politics part, but for most of them it’s just like background symbols.’
For Teman Menaric (not her real name), an indigenous girl from Colombia’s thick-forested department of Chocó, the FARC’s rhetoric of social equality proved far more appealing than the prospect of quitting school to go to work.
‘My mother wanted me to stop studying and go [to work] on the mountain,’ she says in her faltering Spanish. ‘But the guerrillas were around a lot… You know when you’re young and you don’t know much. I believed what they told me.’
Leah tells me that the FARC particularly likes to recruit girls as soldiers – people tend not to suspect 12-year-old girls of being Marxist rebels. David notes that, officially, the FARC implements full gender equality among all recruits, with no difference in status or tasks assigned to boys or girls.
‘But really what happens – from what I’ve seen,’ he continues, ‘is that a new girl arrives at a unit and tries to get in with the strongest guy, usually the comandante. When he gets tired of her after a few weeks, she passes to another guy, and then another, until she’s slept with every soldier in the unit and becomes kind of hardened to everything.’
Leah puts it more starkly: ‘I would say most of the girls in this group have suffered sexual violence.’ Lots of the teenage girls even arrive with children themselves; she tells me about an 18-year-old girl in the CAE who has just been reunited with her 6-year-old child.
But despite the underside of trauma, a cold assessment makes it hard not to conclude that for a lot of the children, joining the guerrillas offered better prospects than an adolescence spent in obscene poverty.
And the very fact of having been in the guerrilla group entitles them to far greater support from the Colombian government after demobilizing than they could have ever expected otherwise.
David, for his part, is both frank and unrepentant in this respect: ‘I think my life is better thanks to the guerrillas than it would have been if I’d stayed on the streets.’
During his vulnerable preteen years, he moved under the protection of his unit. After he demobilized, the CAE ensured he received an education, career training and the support of a team of social workers and psychologists – all this on top of a lump-sum state grant of approximately 15 million pesos (around $7,500) to help with the reintegration process.
But these benefits that proved so important in helping David reintegrate undoubtedly do create a certain level of moral hazard. This in turn fuels the public bitterness seen after the March murder of Luz Miriam Gómez Acevedo: given the policy and spending priorities of the Colombian government, it actually might be easier to find a job as an ex-guerrilla than as a law-abiding citizen.
The perverse incentives created by this situation are apparently not lost on James Areiza, the media co-ordinator at Ciudad Don Bosco.
When I show up at the school to talk to him about the CAE, he won’t take a single question before giving me an hour-long presentation, complete with hand-drawn diagrams, about the 8 other programmes run by Ciudad Don Bosco that assist thousands of vulnerable children every year – an estimated 85,000 over the past half-century.
None of them receive anything remotely close to the level of media attention or financial support garnered by the child soldiers programme, with its 60-odd current enrollment.
For the past decade or so, the CAE has received both financial and developmental support from the Miami-based Developing Minds Foundation, whose website boasts: ‘We have successfully reintegrated hundreds of former child soldiers… Our work experience has enabled us to develop deep expertise in preparing these former combatants for the transition into civilian life.’
Indeed, Areiza – himself a graduate of one of Ciudad Don Bosco’s other programmes for local children – barely stifles open annoyance when discussing the CAE.
‘When I first started working at Don Bosco, the kids in the CAE arrived with nothing and were grateful to have a roof over their heads,’ he tells me. ‘Now they complain if we don’t give them nice shoes. They think everything should be given to them.’
Things were also different at the CAE when David Barreto was there, apparently.
David himself now exudes seething ambition from every pore. The former Caleño street child aims to start his own company and eventually make it big in the United States or Europe. He’s been attending English classes several mornings a week, and peppers me with questions about the US. He rounds off our interview with several criticisms of the CAE’s current programming, which he accuses of promoting ‘assistentialism’ among the kids.
‘The problem with the CAE is that it doesn’t prepare the kids for the job market here,’ he tells me. ‘In Colombia, if you’re not good at what you do, there are 7 other people waiting in line for your job. These kids come out of the programme and they can’t compete.’
But beyond the children’s sense of entitlement, if the open hostility that met Gómez Acevedo’s murder is any indication, one of the biggest obstacles to successful reintegration is something else: rejection by fellow citizens who resent any success among children who’ve broken all the rules to survive.
This is exactly what most concerns Leah Danze.
‘The main question is not if these kids are prepared to go back into society,’ she tells me as we end our interview. ‘It is: is society prepared to welcome them?’