A 17-year-old Colombian once involved with right-wing militias hangs out in the slum where he
lives in Medellin, Colombia, in this photo from January 2007. REUTERS/Fredy Builes
BOGOTA (AlertNet) – It was the dead of night when paramilitary gunmen came to a small farm in northern Colombia and issued Nelson Valdez’s family with an ultimatum.
“They told my mother she had to decide then and there which of her six children she would give up for the cause,” Valdez said.
That cause was to join the right-wing paramilitaries in their fight against their sworn enemy – the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These two groups have been the main players in Colombia’s nearly 50-year-old conflict.
On that fateful night over a decade ago, Valdez was 13 and his sister 15. Despite his young age, Valdez felt he must volunteer and spare his mother the pain of sending her only daughter to fight.
Over the decades, thousands of children like Valdez have been forcibly recruited by Colombia’s illegal armed groups, many by the FARC. The government estimates child soldiers make up over a quarter of the ranks of the 8,000-strong rebel group.
During his four years as a paramilitary fighter, Valdez was trained to use assault rifles and grenades, and make explosives.
He counts himself lucky to have survived the almost monthly clashes in mountainous jungle terrain as FARC rebels and paramilitaries, both funded by drug trafficking, fought over territorial control and lucrative cocaine and arms smuggling routes.
“When the firing starts you just aim in the direction the bullets are coming from and hope for the best. It was hard. I was the youngest in the group. During the worst period of fighting, 50 people died in just one week,” Valdez told AlertNet.
He admits that brandishing his AK-47 rifle brought him respect and made him feel older.
But when he turned 17, the frequent fighting and a grenade injury to his right hand prompted Valdez to think about how futile “the cause” was.
“As I got older I started to question what I was really doing. It was all so pointless. The paramilitary commanders just saw me as a useful tool and not a person,” he said.
Valdez contemplated escaping. His opportunity came one night in 2006 when he noticed a group of government soldiers the other side of the river. As luck would have it, a fisherman passed by in a dugout canoe.
“I knew this was my chance. I asked the fisherman to give me a lift to the other side of the river. When I saw the army, I put my hands up holding my gun in the air and surrendered.”
RETURNING TO CIVILIAN LIFE
Following his surrender, Valdez joined the Colombian government’s reintegration programme that aims to help ex-fighters from all sides of the war rebuild their lives.
He is one of 56,000 combatants from illegal armed groups who have given up their weapons over the last decade, including some 30,000 fighters from paramilitary groups who disarmed during a peace process with the previous government.
Valdez receives a monthly allowance of around $270, providing he attends school or university, free psychological counselling about twice a month and vocational training schemes.
“I have moments of depression but I’m lucky to have a good psychologist and a supportive wife who motivates me to keep going on the right path and study,” he said.
Now 23, Valdez hopes to complete a university degree in business administration next year. At night, he works as a supermarket stock-taker.
But Valdez’s successful return to civilian life is the exception rather than the rule in a reintegration process full of obstacles.
For some ex-fighters, the lack of jobs and temptation to earn more money working for criminal gangs means they end up re-arming.
The government estimates 10 to 15 percent of the 36,000 ex-combatants who have gone through its programme since 2003 are involved in crime or have been recycled back into the conflict.
With unemployment at nearly 11 percent, finding a job is difficult for most Colombians. But it is even harder for ex-fighters.
The average recruitment age for combatants is 16, which means few have completed high school. Many have to go back to school before looking for work.
Around 18,000 ex-fighters who have taken part in the government reintegration programme are unemployed or have found only temporary, often poorly paid work, as builders, security guards and cleaners.
Discrimination is a major obstacle. Employers often view ex-fighters as hardened criminals who do not deserve a second chance.
Of the 4,000 ex-fighters who got jobs without government help, around half have been sacked after their employers found out about their past life, the government says.
For Marely Renteria, a former paramilitary child soldier, resisting tempting offers from gang members, who prey on ex-fighters in Bogota’s slum neighbourhoods, is an ongoing struggle.
Driven by hunger and the prospect of earning $150 a month, Renteria joined a paramilitary group when she was 17. Her job as an armed informant dressed in civilian clothes involved reporting on the comings and goings in a village in Colombia’s western Choco province.
“I know people died because of the information I passed on to the paramilitary commanders. It’s not the life I had imagined for myself,” Renteria, 24, told AlertNet.
After 16 months in paramilitary ranks, she deserted and settled in Bogota in 2007, a city she describes as “lonely, gigantic and cold”.
Every day, Renteria works an 11-hour shift as a kitchen helper in a restaurant. But keeping on the right track is hard.
“I know of several ex-fighters who’ve rejoined. I’ve been tempted to join a gang on several occasions,” said Renteria, a single mother.
“Gang members invite you out to party, they buy you drinks and say you can earn $300 in one afternoon as a prostitute, bank robber or mugger. That’s what I earn in a whole month of slaving away in the kitchen.”
But her two young children and Catholic faith keep her from straying into the criminal underworld.
“My daughters don’t have anyone else but me so I’ve got to stay on the straight and narrow for their sakes,” Renteria said.
Like most ex-fighters, both Renteria and Valdez just want to lead normal lives and forget the past.
“It’s best to keep the past a secret. When people discover you belonged to an armed group that has done so much damage, they look at you with suspicion and fear. Society has yet to accept us. It’s a very slow process,” said Renteria.