Pubdate: Wed, 07 Apr 2021
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Kejal Vyas


PUERTO CACHICAMO, Colombia-The pandemic closed the only school in this
remote hamlet, long a stronghold for Marxist guerrillas. With no
internet connection for virtual classes, 16-year-old Danna Montilla
told her family she was leaving to find work, but instead authorities
say she joined a narco-trafficking rebel group.

Last month, Colombia's military bombarded the group's jungle camp,
killing Danna, another underage girl and 10 others. Residents here
said her death underscored a grim reality: Armed gangs have found
fresh recruits from an ample pool of youths who, like Danna, have been
out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I ask myself, 'Maybe if she stayed in school, had some way to keep
her mind occupied, maybe we wouldn't be at this cemetery,'" said her
father, Jhon Montilla, after laying flowers over Danna's grave on a
recent day.

While the pandemic led to a global shutdown of schools, in Latin
America the closures have been extreme. Stringent lockdowns have led
children on average to miss far more class days than elsewhere in the
world, according to Unicef.

The U.N. agency estimates that Latin American children missed 159
school days on average over the past year, compared with the global
average of 95. Only seven out of the 35 countries in the region have
fully reopened schools, leaving 114 million young people out of the
classroom in what Unicef has called an unfolding "generational

But unlike in other parts of the world, idle children in poor
districts in Latin America from Mexico to Brazil are particularly
vulnerable to powerful, cocaine-trafficking organizations. In
Colombia, rights activists documented the recruitment of children in
22 of the country's 32 provinces during the pandemic, with most cases
taking place in rural provinces where the government has little
presence and drug-smuggling syndicates hold sway.

A group that researches the impact of drug-related violence on
children here, the Coalition Against the Involvement of Children in
Colombia's Conflict, said armed groups recruited 220 youths between 12
and 17 in 2020, an 11% increase from 2019. But the number of child
recruits could be far higher, because it is believed few families
report that their children joined armed gangs for fear of retribution,
said Trian Zuniga, who until last month was the top human rights
official in this province, Guaviare.

"It's a perfect scenario for the guerrillas who want to use kids as
shields, and the parents are too scared to speak up," said Mr. Zuniga.

Sandwiched between cattle farms, virgin jungle and plantations of
coca-the plant whose leaves are the raw ingredient in cocaine-Puerto
Cachicamo is so tied to the drug economy that processed coca had once
been accepted as currency here, said Rigoberto Sanchez, a community

A 2016 peace accord offered new hopes for the hamlet when the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, demobilized 13,000
fighters. But some guerrillas abstained from the peace process and
sought out fresh recruits in this community, located on a river bank a
six-hour drive on a muddy track from the provincial capital.

Activities in Puerto Cachicamo, with its billiard halls and brothels,
are limited for children, who often tend to cattle or help pick coca.
At night, they gather under a streetlight in the only playground. The
pandemic meant that the St. Helena school, serving 170 students, shut
its doors.

"The guerrillas are always fishing in the rivers for new members,"
said one school administrator. "With the kids out of class, this place
turned into an aquarium for them."

Adolescents going off to join the guerrillas are an open secret. "Kids
just leave here and never say where they're going," said Gloria
Martinez, 49, mother of two teenagers and legal guardian for four others.

She recounted how hard it has been to motivate the children to study,
even more challenging in the pandemic. Without internet, parents have
had to rely on home-schooling guides sent by education

Classes recently restarted, with children attending two or three days
a week. Still, one of Ms. Martinez's sons, 15-year-old Gabriel, now
says he doesn't want to attend. He prefers to earn a few pesos
gathering gravel from the river for makeshift cement production.

"I try so hard, but these kids don't have any help to motivate them to
study," Ms. Martinez said.

Puerto Cachicamo became national news when an air force fighter
dropped a bomb in March on a camp south of here that the Defense
Ministry said was operated by Miguel Botache, a former FARC commander
who is one of Colombia's most-wanted outlaws.

Defense Minister Diego Molano said army intelligence had been unaware
of the presence of youths when planning the bombing. Still, Mr. Molano
said in several radio interviews that the minors were justifiable
targets because they had been turned into "war machines" by Mr.
Botache. Rights groups here criticized him fiercely, saying the
children were victims.

"Those who are at the camps are participating in the hostilities," Mr.
Molano told La W Radio.

Among those killed was Jonathan Zambrano, 19. He had set off months
ago to find a job, promising to send money home so his three siblings
could study instead of work in the coca fields, said his father,
Freili Sanchez.

When Mr. Sanchez went to the morgue to pick up his son's body, he was
told not to open up the plastic wrap that enveloped the body because
the badly burned corpse was in an advanced stage of decomposition. He
said he refused to believe that his son had turned into a guerrilla

"I just hold on to that hope that someone will come here and say they
made a mistake, that that's not your son," said Mr. Sanchez, who is
now in debt for the $1,600-worth two years' of income-he had to pay to
transport the body to his hamlet.

In 2019, the Montilla family had moved here from a smaller hamlet
because Puerto Cachicamo had one of the few schools in the area that
offered classwork up through the 10th grade. Danna and her
grandmother, Esperanza Rueda, had made a pact to move to a city in
northern Colombia after she finished school to complete her education

"She really wanted to learn English," said Ms. Rueda, who had raised
Danna, wiping away tears. "I figured in the city, she could do that."

Three of Danna's school teachers said she had sent Whatsapp messages
early in the pandemic, asking how she could continue her classes.
"We'll do everything we possibly can," an instructor told her in an
exchange. They arranged to send Danna, who had an interest in social
activism and a talent for debate, guides and homework

She sent in her last assignment-an essay on politics and economics-in
June. Then she abruptly told her teachers that she could no longer
continue and began to hang around town like other out-of-school youth.

Her sudden change, teachers said, made them suspicious that she had
been recruited by the guerrillas.

Mr. Montilla, who recovered his daughter's charred and mutilated
remains from the morgue, lost contact with Danna in December and said
he doesn't know how she ended up at the camp. Mr. Montilla, who
transitioned from coca to cattle farming years ago, lamented how
youths in his village are often entangled in the drug wars.

Danna, like many youths here, had grown up watching coca farmers clash
in recent years with the military as the government had ramped up its
efforts to eradicate drug crops, he said.

"Between the guerrillas and the army, the youth see little hope here,"
Mr. Montilla said.
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