Colombia has suffered decades of civil conflict involving outlawed armed groups, drug cartels and human rights violations.
Since taking office in 2002, the government of President Alvaro Uribe has made significant advances against the insurgents with the help of a vast intelligence network, largely drawn from civilians living in the combat zones.
But throughout this brutal and confusing conflict both sides have also relied on children to gather information on their opponents.
In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Donata Hardenberg, filmmaker Rodrigo Vazquez spoke about Colombia’s child informants and the battle for the hearts and minds of the country’s children.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to make a film about child informants in Colombia?
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Rodrigo Vazquez: I went to Colombia in 2005 to make a documentary for a UK broadcaster and came across a paramilitary battalion, called Vencedores De Arauca. I was briefly detained [by them] and [then] released.
I found out later that that battalion was involved in massacres and drug-trafficking, and that it recruited child soldiers and put them in charge of the most horrific tasks.
Knowing that the Colombian army had used the paramilitaries to fight against Marxist guerrillas meant that those children were indirectly working for the army.
Later I heard rumours about the use of children by the army as informants. As freedom of press is relative in Colombia, there wasn’t much published on the subject so I decided to investigate.
Why are children being used for intelligence purposes?
They use them because there is a perception that children are not involved in the war, that the children are passive victims of it.
In reality, children are victims of the use that all armed parties make of them to collect information that is then used to wage war.
In the case of the police and the army, they actively seek collaboration from children in both urban and rural combat areas and in places where drug gangs are at war, such as Medellin.
Why do children become informants?
Often children are forced to become informants, either by drug gangs, the guerrillas or the army.
Children are tempted to join an armed group by the possibility of having a gang and becoming an authority figure in their neighbourhood as a result.
In a country where poverty is rife and adults face unemployment, working for an armed faction offers access to power, money and weapons. Gangs also pay the children who inform for them.
What are the repercussions for the children if caught?
They are killed.
Is this a topic that is openly talked about in Colombia?
Not at all. The media in Colombia is controlled by corporations with vested interests in the conflict or the government. Some media is owned by former paramilitaries.
There is only one single TV programme in Colombia that dares speak the truth, but it is relegated to a cable network. It is called Contravia and is anchored by award-winning journalist Hollman Morris. I worked with Hollman’s brother Juan Pablo to make my report.
What do you think are the root causes of the violence in Colombia and the ongoing civil war?
The main cause is the structural poverty and the systemic failure to distribute the country’s wealth fairly.
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Originally the war started following the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a presidential candidate who promised to carry out agrarian reform to benefit the poor peasants, in 1948.
Rumours about CIA involvement in the assassination and the resistance of the ruling landowning class to the redistribution of land triggered a period known as “la violencia”, between the liberal and conservative factions.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution inspired the birth of Marxist guerrillas in Colombia, purporting to fight for the redistribution of wealth through the creation of a socialist state.
What role does drug-trafficking play?
Drug-trafficking started as an industry as a result of the existence of demand for cocaine and marijuana in the US at the time of the Vietnam War.
The same landowners who had opposed the agrarian reform found themselves in a situation where they could dedicate part of the vast land they owned to grow coca and make huge profit margins on its sale to narco-traffickers.
With time some became the heads of drug cartels themselves, involving highly corruptible police authorities and government officials in it.
The creation of Marxist guerrillas prompted landowners to form their own armed groups to fight against the insurgents. These groups were financed by drug-trafficking, either directly or indirectly.
With the end of the Cold War the pro- and anti-Marxist ideological stances used to wage war were effectively dropped in favour of an all out war for the control of territory for drug-trafficking between the militias.