A guerrilla at 14, Luis Bedoya is now 20 and learning to weld in a state-sponsored program for former guerrilla youth in Cali, Colombia. (Juan Forero/TWP)

Colombia’s largest rebel organization has stepped up the recruitment of children to boost its weakened fighting units even as it talks peace with the government, according to child welfare workers, officials and community leaders.

Battered militarily, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, seeks to maintain a semblance of its old self as it negotiates with the government to end a half-century of conflict. The government has the upper hand in the talks being held in Cuba, partly because of the billions of dollars in U.S. security assistance that Colombia has received since 2000, but the flow of child fighters into the ranks of the FARC could give the group some leverage.

“As the guerrillas suffer blows and more and more people desert the FARC, the FARC has gone to the tactic of recruiting children,” said Alma Viviana Perez, who heads the Colombian president’s office of human rights, which among other things works to prevent the recruitment of underage fighters. “They look to replace the men they lose to demobilizations and those who have fallen in battle.”

No one knows with certainty how many children are in the FARC, which the government says has as many as 9,000 fighters. But government officials, human rights groups and former child rebels say there are at least hundreds of underage fighters, if not thousands.

In the last dozen years, the government says, it has attended to more than 5,000 children who have left Colombia’s armed groups, most of them from the FARC. And about 500 children, the bulk of them from the rebel group, are in special government-run orphanages for former underage fighters.

“It’s a silent tragedy where there are no hard statistics, no numbers on how many children there are in war,” said Maria Fernanda Cruz, who oversees programs to stem the recruitment of child fighters for Mercy Corps, an international group operating in Colombia. “But what we have found is that over three years until now, the phenomenon has become more and more pronounced.”

The FARC commanders who have been negotiating in Havana with the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have publicly denied committing war crimes. But the group has long been more nuanced about the recruitment of children, saying that teenage fighters join the group to escape grinding rural poverty.

Carlos Torres joined at 16, prompted by his mother’s inability to care for him.

“This took the weight off my mother’s shoulders, because I was the oldest child,” said Torres, now 20, explaining that his mother had trouble caring for seven children. “So I left home, and that freed up my mother and she could better take care of the others.”

But child welfare advocates say there is no such thing as joining voluntarily, as FARC commanders contend. Children in rural Colombia are under pressure, they say, and are too young to understand what they are getting into.

‘Guns and adventure’

Natalia Springer, a Colombian researcher who spent four years compiling a report about child guerrillas, said children in many regions grow up seeing the FARC as the de facto authority. In her study, called “Like Lambs Among Wolves,” Springer found that 50 percent of adult FARC fighters entered the group as children.

“In some states, like Putumayo or Vaupes, it is considered a tax: A family needs to turn over a child,” said Springer, who reviewed thousands of Defense Ministry files on rebels who deserted and interviewed former guerrillas and former FARC recruiters. “The families often have obligations to the FARC, like having to provide information or storing things like computers. And they permit their children to run errands for the FARC.”

Child welfare workers say that in some regions of southern Colombia, the rebels sometimes set up soccer matches to gain favor with local children or buy groceries for the parents of children they want in their ranks. Prospective recruits then attend workshops at which rebels talk about the coming revolution to overturn the capitalist order.

“They take these kids and brainwash them,” said one local community leader from San Vicente del Caguan, a town where the FARC has traditionally been strong.

“They promise guns and adventure, even the chance to meet girls,” said the leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. “It’s also about the ideology. They tell them they’re the future of Colombia.”

‘Always afraid’

Luis Bedoya entered the FARC when he was 14, joining childhood friends who were guerrillas. He recalled how other children came aboard just as the unit’s more experienced fighters fell in combat or deserted.

“It was always hard, because you never knew when you would get shot or when a bomb might fall on you from above,” said Bedoya, who is rail thin and boyishly shy. “So you were always afraid.”

Now 20, he was captured by the army and has been preparing for a normal life in a big state-financed center for children and young adults who have left the FARC. The center, here in the southwestern city of Cali, features dormitories and ball courts, as well as workrooms where the onetime child insurgents are taught a trade. Bedoya is taking welding classes.

But although far removed from the fighting, the former child fighters say they won’t forget the harrowing life they left behind.

Some recalled other children quietly crying at night or underage fighters dying in combat. Angel Vivas, who served in the FARC from ages 13 to 16, recalled that one 10-year-old fighter was executed for having thrown away his rifle.

“The commander shot him right then and there and told the others to throw him in the same hole where he slept,” Vivas said.

Jasmin Fandiño, 20, who said she joined at 15 to escape an abusive household, recalled how bombing runs or strikes by army commandos killed some teenage fighters.

“It was hard for us,” she said. “Some were friends. So you would feel very alone.”

Now Fandiño is taking cooking classes and hopes to one day work as a chef — if prospective employers will not hold her past against her.

“I am now going on with my life, trying to improve myself,” she said. “So, hopefully, people will see that and it won’t be a problem when I try to get a job.”