LIMA, Peru — Renewed fighting between Peruvian security forces and a remnant faction of the Shining Path guerrillas has brought to light new evidence that the Marxist rebel group is using children as combatants.
In April, a band of rebels, which witnesses said included fighters as young as 13, kidnapped and later released of 40 workers at natural gas company in a jungle hamlet in Peru's central Amazon.
The brazen raid, the first of its kind in years, prompted a crackdown by state forces in Peru's deadly Apurimac and Ene River Valleys, known as the VRAE, where half the country's cocaine is produced.
The raid also has generated more evidence against the notorious terrorist group, which waged an ideological war against the state in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to convert children as young as 7 into combatants and impregnate captured adolescents in order to sustain their ranks.
"We must save these children from the terrorists," Oscar Valdes, president of Peru's council of ministers, said shortly after the raid.
Mr. Valdes called on nongovernmental organizations to help bring an end to the group's recruitment.
Teresa Carpio, director of the Peruvian branch of the international advocacy group Save the Children, said the Peruvian government has not provided estimates on how many children the group is holding. But based on journalists' accounts, she said, an estimated 80 minors are being detained inside a 12,000-square-mile swath of remote jungle.
Young children indoctrinated
Ms. Carpio said the scale of the problem in Peru pales in comparison with regions such as Africa, but it stands out for another reason.
"The case here in Peru is different from Africa because the Shining Path are using children starting at the ages of 4, 5 and 6," she said.
A Peruvian television station, Canal N, recently broadcast video of child combatants thought to have been taken in 2010. It shows small children marching through the high jungles, some with machine guns, others with cargo.
Some footage shows soldiers, including some who appear to be preteens, in military formation with AK-47 assault rifles. Children are shown studying communist propaganda. In one shot of a jungle encampment, toddlers are clearly visible.
According to media reports and testimony of children who escaped, the group begins a Marxist education as early as age 2. By 5, many are sent to a military camp. They enter training to become snipers by 11, and the "little pioneers" become full-fledged combatants by 13.
Officials say the children also serve as human shields to prevent airborne strikes from military helicopters.
An additional problem, officials say, is that young captives freed from remote jungle encampments must be resocialized because they have grown up knowing only their captors.
Adolescent females are forced to bear children. In 2011, Peruvian forces rescued a 19-year-old woman and her baby son. She said she was kidnapped when she was 9 years old and forced to have a child.
In April, a pregnant teenager said she was forced to work in jungle cocaine laboratories.
Recent events have opened painful memories. The Shining Path is infamous for its barbaric treatment of children. The Peruvian government's Commission on Truth and Reconciliation has documented evidence that rebels tortured minors to strike fear in villages and sometimes killed them to prevent them from being recruited into the Peruvian army.
Peruvian prosecutor Julio Galindo recently recalled that one of the Shining Path's worst massacres, in the state of Ayacucho in April 1983, involved the killings of 69 villagers who opposed their struggle. A quarter of those, he said, were children.
All in the family
Many of the minors under the Shining Path's control today are said to be children or grandchildren of the group's founders. Much of what is known about them comes from a handful of interviews given to journalists in recent years and from testimonies by captured rebels or their victims who escaped.
In 2010, police arrested Victor Quispe Zaga, the eldest son of Victor Quispe Palomino, a Shining Path leader. He left the rebels after learning that his father had killed his mother. The younger Quispe told authorities of growing up in horrible conditions that compelled him to undergo ideological and military training starting at age 5.
Other minors being held are thought to be Ashaninka native children kidnapped from marginalized jungle communities in the VRAE, which often lack even the most basic government services.
In April, Save the Children and another Peruvian rights group, known as Iprodes, formally requested that the government arrest the rebel group's remaining leaders specifically on charges related to their mistreatment of children.
"No one in Peru, none of the Shining Path leaders, has been charged specifically with the forced recruitment of children," Ms. Carpio said.
Peru is a signatory to international conventions that give authorities legal grounds for prosecuting those accused of using children as soldiers, said Fabian Novak Talavera, of Peru's Catholic University, a researcher on child combatants.
One Peruvian congressman is pushing a modification to Peru's anti-terrorism legislation to specifically deal with the issue.
Congressman Octavio Salazar has proposed legislation that would impose a minimum 25-year sentence on anyone who captures minors for the purposes of arming and educating them in terrorist practices. Mr. Salazar said he plans to submit a document to congressional leadership this week asking for an urgent debate on his proposal.
"If passed, it will be the first law of its kind in Peru," he said.
Analysts say the U.S. government has taken no stance on the issue. Ms. Carpio of Save the Children said that when she worked at Amnesty International, she was contacted by a U.S. Embassy official and asked about human rights relating to children.
"But I've had no contact with anyone from the embassy on the matter of child soldiers, nor have I heard of any memorandums between the U.S. and Peru," she said. "They've said nothing despite the fact that our proclamations have been all over the international media lately."
The U.S. Embassy in Peru declined to comment.
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