Guerrillas lure Colombian schoolchildren on TikTok

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Fighters belonging to breakaway groups associated with Colombia’s largest rebel movement are posting videos on TikTok to entice young people to join them.

The BBC has investigated the growth of guerrilla recruitment videos, with dissident factions yet to agree a peace deal with the Colombian government.

“One or two start the trend and it becomes fashionable in the classroom,” says Lorena (not her real name), a 30-year-old teacher in Cauca, a rural region in southwestern Colombia.

She says that when she enters her classroom, she is often met by students filming themselves on their smartphones and drawing symbols inspired by the now demobilized Guerrilla group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) on the board, or dancing to revolutionary tunes.

Lorena, who asked to remain anonymous for her own safety, says this type of pro-guerrilla behavior among students is becoming increasingly common.

“It used to be more secretive… (but) it’s completely normalized,” she said in an interview with the BBC via Zoom.

“Unfortunately, it’s one or two (students) who start seeing the clips (on Tiktok) in one classroom – and then it becomes trendy.”

She said students then often disappear, and the next time she sees them they appear in TikTok videos – armed and dressed as fighters.

Three screenshots from TikTok videos showing young girls dressed in military fatigues, luxury cars, money emojis, and a young man in military fatigues looking over a green mountain range while carrying a rifleThree screenshots from TikTok videos showing young girls dressed in military fatigues, luxury cars, money emojis and a young man in military fatigues looking over a green mountain range while carrying a rifle

The BBC found hundreds of guerrilla videos on TikTok (faces blurred by BBC) (BBC)

In Cauca, both children and adults have grown up alongside the Farc, which has had a strong presence in the region since the left-wing armed group’s founding in 1964.

The group, which had more than 20,000 members at its peak, was officially demobilized signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016.

Yet some dissident factions have done so still to lay down their weaponsand some of the most powerful of these armed units are currently active in Cauca.

These Farc factions have joined forces to form a larger umbrella group called the Estado Mayor Central (EMC).

Authorities estimate that the EMC has more than 3,000 members.

So far, attempts by the current left-wing government, led by President Gustavo Petro, to negotiate with these various factions have failed.

The factions continue to operate and reportedly finance themselves through drug trafficking and maintain control of many rural areas.

Officials say the dissident groups continue to expand their ranks, with younger people targeted for recruitment.

While the recruitment of children by guerrilla groups has been a problem in Colombia for decades, the infiltration of social media has made it harder to eliminate these children, experts and officials told the BBC.

The deputy of the Colombian Ombudsman’s Early Alert System, Ricardo Arias Macías, told the BBC that at least 184 young people have been recruited by guerrilla groups in 2023.

In 2024, 159 young people had registered in the first half of the year alone (until June) – all under the age of 18; 124 of them were children from Cauca.

“These are just the reported cases; most are not even reported,” he said.

Lorena, who has been teaching in poor, remote communities for nine years, says at least 15 students have left her school to join the guerrillas in the past year.

“You feel so much pain, disappointment… so much powerlessness,” she told the BBC.

According to Lorena, the use of social media, especially TikTok, by the guerrilla factions has “exploded” following the Covid pandemic.

Now that the majority of students have internet-enabled phones, “we have no control over that,” she says: “They’re always on it.”

Over a four-week period, the BBC identified more than 50 accounts on TikTok promoting Colombian guerrillas, with fighters showcasing their high-profile lifestyles and encouraging others to join.

However, they do not consider the dangers that come with joining an armed group.

Many of the videos posted by fighters in EMC factions implicitly contained recruitment language, encouraging viewers to join one faction or another. Repeatedly, users asked how they could participate in the comments section.

Songs glorifying fallen leaders and guerrilla life form the soundtrack to these videos, and young girls and boys are seen holding weapons or standing next to coca crops.

While some accounts explicitly mentioned the name of their faction, many alluded to the Farc by using a samurai emoji with a Colombian flag.

A dark background with screenshots of responses to TikTok videos collected by the BBC asking how to join dissident armed groups in Colombia. A dark background with screenshots of responses to TikTok videos collected by the BBC asking how to join dissident armed groups in Colombia.

Some TikTok users asked how to join the dissident armed groups (BBC)

In April, Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez warned of the dangers of such EMC TikTok videos.

“These are recruitment drives carried out to attract children – minors – in different regions of the country,” he said.

According to Santiago Rodríguez, a journalist working for the Colombian investigative site La Silla Vacia, the EMC has long had official social media channels for sharing statements, including a WhatsApp group with journalists and a Facebook account.

But recently the content has migrated to TikTok, reaching a younger audience.

According to Sergio Saffon, Colombia expert for investigative media organization InSight Crime, videos posted by EMC fighters are especially effective among children living in poor communities.

Young people are being sold “a great life where you can have anything you want: money, women, motorcycles,” Mr Saffron says.

Many of the TikTok accounts the BBC identified were eventually banned by the platform. Still, new content continued to appear, while other accounts were deleted.

TikTok did not respond to a written request for comment from the BBC, but their community guidelines say that “moderating millions of pieces of content every day is a complex effort, and developing a reliable process for doing this is fundamental.”

A screenshot of a TikTok video showing a green background with white lettering to promote a recruiting message. A screenshot of a TikTok video showing a green background with white lettering to promote a recruiting message.

This TikTok video contains a recruitment message: “Join us, we are waiting for all of you for a better future” (BBC)

It is also not easy for the Colombian authorities to counter the social media drive of the guerrillas.

The Office of the Ombudsman has set up a new delegation specifically to address the issue, but it has only just gotten off the ground, Mr. Arias said.

Even the EMC is trying to prevent its members from gaining a big reputation on TikTok, according to Sebastián Martínez, a member of one of the EMC factions in Cauca, who is officially part of the group’s now-stalled dialogue committee.

“There is no Farc propaganda campaign to recruit people through social media,” he told the BBC in a Zoom interview.

“There are specific cases that sometimes get out of our hands… That can pose security risks, and we are trying to keep that under control,” he said.

Mr Martínez admitted that the EMC’s funding came from illegal businesses, such as taxes on coca, poppy and marijuana growers – although he claimed they were now also venturing into legal agricultural crops.

He also admitted that the group employed children as young as 15, which Colombian authorities consider forced recruitment due to what is described as a “lack of agency” at that age.

Meanwhile, Lorena struggles to save her students from the dangers of guerrilla life.

She and a group of other teachers have set up a school network to monitor social media accounts, and set up an emergency chat for students to contact if they feel threatened.

“We can’t give them everything. We fight tooth and nail and try to ignore our fears.

“But when you see one life change — when they come back and tell you they graduated or started a business, that’s what keeps you fighting.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Griffin, BBC Trending

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