Luis Troches was walking home from the shop in late July when armed men stopped him along a dirt road in south-west Colombia. They gave the 14-year-old an ultimatum: he could join their group – dissidents from the demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) – or they could take him and his 11-year-old sister by force.
“He came home scared and distant,” said his mother, Luzmery. Both knew that the men, who control their hamlet in the northern Cauca province, would be back for an answer. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to go. What should I do?’”
With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing across Colombia, armed groups are exploiting Covid-19 measures intended to protect the public to escalate conflicts over territorial control and drug-trafficking routes. Indepaz, a local conflict watchdog, has reported 68 murders this year, often involving young people, and the killing of 246 community leaders.
Child recruitment rates, which had gradually increased since the 2016 peace deal, rocketed this year as the pandemic closed schools and worsened living conditions.
With communities doubly affected by the armed conflict and the pandemic, protesters are once again pouring into the streets of Bogotá, demanding government action. Around 10,000 protesters arrived in the capital last month from Cauca, seeking an urgent meeting with President Iván Duque over renewed violence.
“We don’t want any more massacres,” said Luzmery, who travelled more than 500km in a mass bus caravan to join protests. “We’re tired of our youth being recruited or killed.”
Aside from stronger protection measures, protesters demanded an improvement to rural conditions, as accorded in the peace deal and previous agreements with local people, but that they say the government has been slow or unwilling to implement.
In the wake of a peace treaty with Farc rebels that ended more than half a century of war, a complex array of smaller leftist guerrillas, far-right paramilitary factions and drug cartels are competing for control of lucrative drug routes. Some Farc members have also rearmed and regrouped.
Along with murdering youth and community leaders, armed groups are recruiting children to exert control over people and fill their ever-expanding ranks.
The pandemic has emboldened groups to ramp up these illegal practices. According to Coalico, a group monitoring the conflict’s impact on children, 190 children were recruited in the first five months of the year – a fivefold jump from the same period in 2019, when the figure was 38.
These forced recruitments are concentrated in areas with extreme poverty and poor access to basic services. They have increased along the Pacific coast and south-west region.
“If a community doesn’t have access to running water, education, recreational spaces and other basic elements, then the risk of child recruitment increases,” said Julia Castellanos, a researcher at Coalico.
Militias lure children with promises of cash, mobile phones and motorcycles. Sometimes they offer up to $400 (£303) a month – almost twice the minimum wage – a fortune for families living in poverty.
The economic fallout of the pandemic, which threatens to reverse two decades of social progress in Colombia, has made cooperating an attractive option.
“They appeal to them with … the false notion that being part of the group is an advancement,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Schools – usually a safe place – have remained closed for months leaving children on the streets and more exposed to recruitment. Due to poor internet access, phone signals and electricity, at least 13,000 students had given up on their studies by August.
The crisis poses a dilemma for officials, who seek to protect children from the virus as well as keeping them in school. Castellanos said some communities are experimenting with radio lessons as schools struggle to reopen under strict conditions, but need institutional support to continue.
A new government plan announced this summer in coordination with the UN’s children and migration agencies may seriously address the problem of child recruitment. It aims at strengthening reporting mechanisms and early warning systems in 16 regions.
Still, many insist that the government is failing to do enough to protect their children. Key features of the peace deal aimed at addressing the roots of the armed conflict, such as rural reform and development, remain pending – and may take another 10 years to fully implement, according to the Comptroller General’s Office.
For families in northern Cauca, time is running out. Luis and his family fled the area, but other children have not been able to run away. In the rural hillsides of Corinto, Gonzalo Cuetia, a local patrol chief, said 20% of young people had been recruited into armed gangs this year in a blow for his community and the wider peace process.
“In our families and in our communities, we dream that our youth can replace us as defenders of life,” said Cuetia. “We want them to support the community, not destroy it.”