BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-biggest guerrilla group, is recruiting girls to charge extortion payments from illegal miners and is giving them weapons, El Tiempo newspaper has reported.
The newspaper said that in a rebel video, which the Colombian army says it seized during a raid on an ELN jungle camp last January, around 15 girls aged 13 to 17 are shown holding AK-47 assault rifles and M-60 machine guns. They are dressed in camouflage uniforms with ELN insignia.
“They (ELN) attract youths with small gifts and make them believe that in guerrilla ranks they are going to have everything they need, “an anonymous military source is quoted as saying in El Tiempo.”
“In the jungles they perhaps have what they need, like stuff to wash themselves with and daily meals, but the rebels take away their opportunity to see their families, have children and live a normal live.”
Inspired by the Cuban revolution and set up by radical Catholic priests in 1964, the ELN has fought against consecutive Colombian governments and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
The 3,000-strong ELN is largely financed by "war taxes" or extortion payments levied on landowners, oil companies, illegal gold and silver mining operations, and to a lesser extent kidnapping for ransom.
Colombia’s military says the ELN, propped up by child soldiers, is seeking to take control of some mining areas in the northwest and along its Pacific coast, where rebels and criminal gangs are fighting for a stake in the mining boom, an increasingly important source of revenue for rebel groups and criminals.
Illegal armed groups from both sides of Colombia’s 50-year war - leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries - along with drug-running criminal gangs have recruited children to their ranks, the government says.
Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), forcibly recruits more children into its ranks than any other illegal armed group in the country, according to the government.
Rights groups have documented rebel groups using children as messengers, informants, porters and cooks, as well as training them to fight in combat, use weapons and plant homemade landmines. Girls are also used as sex slaves for rebel commanders and undergo forced abortions, according to Human Rights Watch.
Since 1999, Colombia’s child welfare agency (ICBF) has looked after more than 5,000 former child combatants.
Peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government have been taking place in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012 in a bid to end five decades of war that has killed more than 200,000 civilians and uprooted over 5 million Colombians.
The ELN is also seeking a place at the negotiating table in Havana. Bringing the ELN rebels into the peace negotiations is vital for lasting peace, a recent report by International Crisis Group (ICG) warned.