BOGOTA, Colombia—Latin America's largest guerrilla group announced on Wednesday that for the first time in decades it will stop recruiting minors into its military ranks.
The announcement comes as The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) heads into the final stretch of peace talks with the Colombian government. A long-sought peace deal that would end the hemisphere’s longest guerrilla war.
“This decision should be met with real policies to protect and guarantee the rights of children,” the marxist rebels said in their statement. “Our aspiration is that the Colombian state can finally guarantee the realization of all children's and teenagers’ dreams in a peaceful environment.”
For several decades, the FARC’s statutes have allowed guerrilla commanders to recruit anyone over the age of 15, garnering criticism from human rights organizations and the Colombian government.
The rebel group said on Wednesday that most of the teenagers it has recruited over the years joined voluntarily because they lived in dirt-poor conditions and were deprived of “minimal social rights.”
The government meanwhile, has accused the FARC of forcibly recruiting hundreds of children and forcing them into combat.
Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman said on Wednesday that the new FARC announcement is a “significant contribution” to the peace talks, which have been taking place in Cuba since 2012. But the Ombudsman’s office warned that the FARC has already broken a 2015 promise to stop recruiting people under 17. According to the Ombudsman, the guerrillas forcibly conscripted five teenagers between the ages of 15 and 16 last year.
“We trust that the boys, girls and teenagers who are still in the ranks of this group will be separated from this organization soon,” the Ombudsman’s office said in a statement.
The FARC and the Colombian government have vowed to conclude peace negotiations by the end of March.
After making agreements on land titling programs, anti-drug policies and a transitional justice system that will investigate war crimes, both sides are still discussing the conditions under which the guerrillas will lay down their weapons.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.