| 2008/11/11 00:00

The lost boys of “El Alemán”

For three years the Élmer Cárdenas front of the paramilitaries hid the silent demobilization of 156 minors who fought in the Colombian conflict. Is it the only case?

The lost boys of “El Alemán”

In October 2005 a silent demobilization occurred. Far from the cameras and almost clandestine, 156 boys, who were part of the Élmer Cárdenas group of the AUC, the paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, who operated in Urabá under the command of Freddy Rendón, alias el ‘Alemán’ or the “German”, met with their families in the El Mello school of Necoclí and returned home.

The government never found out about this event. And the country would not have known about it either, but it all got revealed because, an investigator from the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, showed “El Alemán” a report by the photographer Julián Lineros in a book in which the faces of several minors can be seen during a military training. Only at that time did the former paramilitary and his lawyers first understand the seriousness of the issue. The recruitment of minors is a crime against humanity severely punished by international courts. Up until now it has been an invisible crime in Colombia, one which few- if any- paramilitaries have ever spoken about.

What is paradoxical is that all of the paramilitary fronts, without exception, recruited minors. Unfortunately, in all wars children are cannon fodder, for their audacity, agility and because they still do not really understand the concepts of killing and dying as adults do.

One of those is Anderson*. He has small, intense eyes and light brown skin. He is 19 now, but was 15 when one day he left the neighborhood where he lived in Necoclí and volunteered at the El Roble camp of the Élmer Cárdenas block of the AUC. He had been abandoned by his father and lived with his sick mother. Although to everyone else he was still a boy, Anderson felt like the man of the house and thought that he now had prove it. There was no better way to do that, than by signing up for war, he thought. The paramilitaries paid him a minimum wage which covered his basic needs. When he arrived at the training camp he saw himself as too skinny, as all around him were muscular young men. That is why he lied about his age, and said he was 17. Many did the same.

Anderson never imagined what would happen next. He began to miss his mother a great deal as well as home cooked food. He immediately had doubts about whether to continue, but now there was no turning back. Afterwards they sent him to the Salaquí River in the department of Chocó as a rifleman. There they fought all the time, lacked food, and the weather conditions were extreme. Carrying his gun, 500 bullets along with his own backpack was too heavy. “Your body got accustomed to it, but not your mind,” he says. Not many weeks had passed before he regretted being there. He felt this even more after his first combat mission, when he saw a buddy get shot and die during a sudden burst of gunfire while was peeling some sugar cane. Anderson didn’t react. He became paralyzed and if it weren’t for another companion who threw him to the ground, he would have also been killed. After that he had the worst combat experience of his life. “They attacked us as we were climbing up a small hill. We were fighting the guerrillas for three days until a helicopter arrived and helped us out. I cried a lot during that combat. I felt alone, trapped. I felt like running away. I was always in a bad mood, isolated and alone. Many times I felt like shooting myself”, he says.

In fact, when combat with the 57th and 58th fronts of the Farc intensified, and the paramilitaries had long days of marches, sometimes without food and in the middle of the clamor, some of the young men shot themselves so that they could be taken out of combat. “I saw a driver who shot himself in the foot, and became disabled. I also saw two or three who shot themselves in the hand to be relieved”. But he still didn’t have the courage to do the same.

One day, when he was cooking for the whole group, he heard that the commander of his company had received a call and later met with the minors of the company and told them, “Go back to your homes”. In negotiations between the government and the Élmer Cárdenas block, the high commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, the presidential advisor for the peace process with the paramilitaries, warned “El Alemán” that minors couldn’t be demobilized like all other combatants, but rather that they had to be turned over to the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), the government’s family and child welfare agency. They would not be considered perpetrators but rather as victims, because that is the treatment that they receive internationally.

The heads of the Élmer Cárdenas block met and decided that the minors should return to their homes, because if they were turned over to the ICBF, they would be separated from their families. That is why they decided to return the boys to their mothers directly, even though this is not what was established during the negotiations with the government.

Anderson left the combat zone with 80 other minors, of which only eight carried weapons. The journey was long and difficult, because there were skirmishes with militants from the Farc at various places along the way. When they arrived at the El Mello neighborhood, they met up with the other boys, and during about a week they took part in collective therapy with psychologists contracted by the Élmer Cárdenas block, played soccer and regained their strength, until the day their release came.

In a big event in which more than 300 people participated, the young men, with new sweatshirts, t-shirts and tennis shoes and a million pesos (about $430 USD) in their pockets, lined up in formation on a field. An improvised stage was set up for the speeches in which they were promised a new life, with their own house or piece of land. “El Alemán” and the other commanders began to read a list, one by one, of the names of the boys, and in that moment they were directly turned over to their mothers or fathers.

Anderson melted in his mother’s embrace. “She touched me all over my body, my face, and asked me several times ‘Are you OK?’” he remembers. But others were met with hits to their head from their parents. “Some had left their homes without saying anything and the parents thought that they were disappeared,” says Alejandro Toro, one of the demobilized members of the Élmer Cárdenas block, who today leads the foundation Construpaz, an association of 300 former combatants in the Urabá area.

The problem is that those 156 boys were completely left out of the reincorporation process that was specified in the negotiations. As they officially didn’t exist, they weren’t demobilized. Only now the prosecutor general’s office is traveling to the region, trying to find them all, and involve them in the process not as demobilized but as victims who have the right to reparation. All of them are now adults and like all of the young people of that region, are jobless and are receiving offers to return to fight, this time with groups that were formerly under the command of “Don Mario”, the new drug kingpin, and are now regrouping as drug trafficking bands.

This demobilization came about unnoticed by the government and by the Organization of American States (OAS), who had been monitoring the process. Inexplicably nobody had asked what had happened to the minors until the issue came up in judicial testimony. A few months ago this controversy arose and there were mutual recriminations between Freddy Rendón and the high commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo.

Anyhow, “El Alemán” has confessed to the recruitment. Several victims- especially mothers of the minors who died in combat – are demanding reparation. This will be the first crime for which this former paramilitary will be charged. However, there are doubts about what happened in other blocks, as the ICBF officially has received less than 300 demobilized minors, a figure which does not correspond with the reality of some armed groups that used the boys as cannon fodder.

*Name has been changed

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