By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Illegal armed groups in Colombia are using forcibly recruited children and adolescents as "war machines" and sexual slaves amid ongoing internal conflict in the country, the government said on Friday.
Violence in Colombia fell after a 2016 peace deal with its largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but still-active guerrillas and crime gangs continue to target minors for recruitment.
"This crime must be abolished," said President Ivan Duque at an event commemorating the international convention that prohibits the use of children in armed conflicts. "One of the greatest tragedies humanity has seen is the recruitment of minors."
Armed groups convert children into "war machines, leading them to the cruelty of extinguishing another life, of being used as human shields for criminal leaders and also being used as sexual slaves for the same commanders," Duque said.
Between 2018 and 2020, 313 children and adolescents were forcibly recruited, according to the government's unit responsible for registering victims. Recruitment figures fell 53% in 2020 compared with 2019, when there was a 30% reduction from 2018.
Some children were recruited at as young as six, but 96% were between 12 and 17 years old when they were enlisted, official figures showed. In the last three years 520 minors have left armed groups.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, former FARC fighters who reject the peace deal and crime gangs founded by right-wing ex-paramilitaries are all guilty of child recruitment, the government says.
In some areas - including the Pacific city of Buenaventura, where recent gang violence has led to protests and demands for government help - recruitment is made easier by poverty and lack of educational and work opportunities for youth.
Between 1985 and 2020 over 7,400 Colombian minors were forcibly recruited, and around 16,000 children were killed in the conflict.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)