The #StopKony2012 campaign raised awareness about child soldiers in Africa, launching a discussion about how the global community should respond. Similarly, evidence in the form of videos, photos and the testimonies of survivors indicates that both the Shining Path in Peru and the FARC in Colombia employ child soldiers, as well as some of the more radical supporters of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
But, the use of children to promote armed conflict in Latin America is not limited to a few isolated paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations deep in the jungles of South America. Criminal gangs and drug cartels throughout Mexico, Central America and Brazil also specifically target minors.
The reasons for joining are as varied and unique as the young people themselves, but here are a few common causes:
Coercion: What can a five-year-old say when he’s sent to live with his father in a militant camp deep in the jungle? When they place the revolver in your 11-year-old hands and all eyes are on you, will you execute the traitor who informed on your friend? Or will you volunteer to be next?
Protection: In many cases, young people choose to join out of self-preservation. Sometimes it’s easier to seek protection from within a gang than to secure police protection from the gang.
Socialization: Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of their deep need to fit in. It’s a lot easier to define yourself when you have a specific group with which to identify.
To end youth violence, we should begin by directing more funding to youth development programs, even if this means redirecting funds from other programs. Young people need positive alternatives that are “cool” while promoting healthy relationships and strong communities, focusing on decision-making, conflict resolution and vocational skills.
Next, we should reform the justice systems to ensure that minors are protected – both physically and socially – from hardened adult criminals. All options should be on the table, to include alternative sentencing for juvenile offenders – even violent offenders, if there’s evidence of coercion or indoctrination.
Finally, as part of an ongoing fight against impunity, we should seek to prosecute those who employ child soldiers in any form, be they pint-sized Maoist guerrillas, drug cartel child assassins or junior gang members. These should be separate charges, in addition to narcotrafficking and murder, as is appropriate. The ICC set an important precedent recently with the first war-crimes conviction for recruiting and using child soldiers.
It’s also important to note that this is, in general, a gender-based crime. While young women are important for producing future combatants, young men are particularly at risk. Not only are they targeted more frequently, but they’re more susceptible to the challenge; after all, masculinity must be proven, goes the belief. This need to “be a man” only intensifies in predominantly male groups, where machismo reigns.
If today’s youth are the key to our future, they must become today’s priority. After all, who will govern our nations in 30 years? And what kind of policies will they promote?
By guest contributor, Jackie M. Briski, of Cuando asi no sea.