VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombia's Marxist rebels, their ranks depleted by record desertions and military defeats, are stepping up recruitment of children in a desperate bid to prolong their war against the state.
More and more families say they are being forced to leave their homes under threat of having their children taken off to fight with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and other cocaine-funded militias.
The FARC has long used children in its 44-year-old war but is recruiting more aggressively to try to make up for a sharp decline in its fighting force.
One girl in the impoverished central province of Meta said the guerrillas first tried to persuade her to join by saying she would be helping defend her people against the rich.
Only 12 years old and not too interested in revolutionary politics, she just shrugged her shoulders. Then they sent good looking boys to buy her soda-pop and dance with her at the local makeshift disco, furthering the recruitment effort.
She still refused, so they threatened to hurt her. That was when she fled with her family, joining an estimated 3 million Colombians displaced by the war.
"At first it was kind of like a seduction. Then they started saying, 'You have to do this,'" said the girl, who now lives at a school for displaced children in Villavicencio, Meta.
She asked not to be named, fearing the FARC might track her down and seek reprisal. Her parents are back living in her home town hours away.
Violence has fallen in recent years thanks to a U.S.-backed security push that has pummeled the FARC in many parts of the country as the war turns into little more than a turf battle over drug-smuggling routes.
The government says the rebel army has been cut in half from around 17,000 fighters when President Alvaro Uribe won power six years ago on promises of crushing the insurgency.
The FARC is widely despised in Colombia and it has become harder for rebel leaders to recruit even in areas it still controls, so experts say it is looking to recruit boys and girls who can be more easily indoctrinated.
Other armed groups are using similar tactics, making the recruitment of children and adolescents the principal problem of the conflict today, said Jorge Rojas, head of CODHES, Colombia's main human rights organization.
"Most 18-year-olds have already decided against getting involved in the war. But a child of 12 has not formed any opinions and can be trained to kill without remorse. By the time they are 18 they are cold-blooded assassins," Rojas said.
"It is very hard for them to recover socially and psychologically because they don't understand the dimension of what they've done," he said. "So the longer this type of recruitment goes on, the longer the war is likely to last."
CODHES says 270,000 people were forced out of their homes in the first half of this year, a 41 percent jump from the same period in 2007.
Most were forced out by fighting between the army and the FARC, the rearming of far-right paramilitary groups that had demobilized, and fear over child recruitment, Rojas says.
Colombia has the world's biggest displaced population after Sudan, says the United Nations, which is getting more reports of families leaving their homes to prevent their children from being taken away by illegal armed groups.
"More and more witnesses are telling us that their displacement is linked to this issue," said Giovanni Lepri, head of the U.N. refugee agency office in Villavicencio, where Colombia's southern flatlands meet the Andes mountain chain.
Children are used by rebels and paramilitaries to gather information about who is coming and going from the towns they control. They can also be used to transport small arms in the book bags they sling over their shoulders and carry out other tasks under the noses of unsuspecting police.
Children as young as 10 are recruited, although they generally do not become armed fighters until they are at least 13.
Guerrilla fighters used to order bread from the bakery owned by the family of another girl, named Viviana, in a town called La Julia in the province of Meta. They would let her brothers hold their guns, telling them they should join up.
"They were persistent. When my father told them to leave us alone, that we would sell bread to them but nothing more, they threatened us," she said. "We left the bakery behind. We had to get out."
Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Kieran Murray