Christians in Colombia—particularly those in rural areas—can face violence and pressure simply for following Jesus. One of the biggest threats to Colombian believers comes from armed rebels/criminal gangs, who often target young people for recruitment. When pastors or other Christians try to prevent these gangs from taking young people—or selling them drugs—they can be targeted for violence.
But for some young people, the promise of a better life can be enticing on its own.
Ines* is one of these young Christians. She was just 13 years old when she began to be enticed by guns and the lure of a better life that seemed to come with belonging to a gang.
Originally from Colombia’s rural southern Guaviare district, she wanted to rebel and thought there had to be a way out of the poverty her family was facing.
She was soon introduced to an armed group carrying out illegal operations in the area and recruiting youngsters. Ines showed a keen interest in them.
“I liked guns, always had, although I never told my parents,” says Ines, now 16. “My behavior towards my parents was terrible. Finally, there came the point where all I wanted to do was to leave and join an armed group.”
‘I wanted to go with them because they had guns’
Guaviare district in southern central Colombia is a center for criminal armed groups. They are mainly comprised of former members of the now-inactive rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Guaviare is located on one of the main cocaine trafficking routes, where there are coca crops all around. These armed groups are also involved in illegal mining, kidnappings and extortion.
One of their main strategies is to lure children with the offer of wealth, motorcycles and good food. Since the mid-1990s, FARC guerrillas have recruited nearly 20,000 children.
Some of Ines’ classmates had already succumbed to the promises of a better life: “I have friends who have fallen into this. The armed groups use a lot of things to attract young people. For example, they offer boys cell phones, money, nice things.”
But the tactics change to something more subtle when recruiting girls, she says. “A boy from the community who has already been taken by an armed group and who has a good and charming character tries to win over girls and takes them away. This is what happened to a friend of mine.”
According to Ines, Christian girls are a well sought-after prey: “The armed groups like the ones who lead a Christian life because they know church girls always properly take care of themselves, and this is why the commanders want them.”
Colombia is number 22 on Open Doors’ World Watch List
. Despite over 95 per cent of the population being Christian, there is a high level of persecution—much of it coming from Colombia’s armed gangs who see Christian leaders as a major impediment to their criminal activities.
Ines came close to falling into the trap set by these groups: “Sometimes they invited me to go out, wanting to treat me to something nice. There were times when I would say yes, and other times I said no. I wanted to be like them and to go with them because they had guns and a lot of other things.”
‘The Children’s Center helped me to change’
Fortunately, her parents intervened before it was too late and sent her to the Open Doors Children’s Center for her safety.
“My parents wanted me to correct my behavior. They wanted the best for me, to have a career. So, they told me they had found a place for me to go and that is why I’m here today,” Ines says.
She remembers that when she first arrived, she didn’t want anything to do with God. “If my behavior with my parents was bad, my behavior with God was even worse. I didn't want to know anything, I didn’t want them or anybody else to talk to me about God. Satan was ruling my life so deeply that I didn´t want to hear from God.”
Today, Ines is a changed person. She is now a Christian and wants to teach other young people like her that there is a way out of the gripping power of criminal and illegal armed groups.
Over 300 children have attended Open Doors’ Children’s Center. Some of the children live there until they graduate from their education, while others stay even beyond that. In addition to school activities, they learn vocational and technical skills such as cooking, hairdressing, music and computing. But above all, it’s an environment that resembles home, where they are loved and cared for so that they can grow in their faith and thrive.
“Being here in the Children’s Center helped me a lot to change,” Ines says. “My behavior with my parents is better, and my spiritual life has also changed. Now I am very different.”
*Because of the ongoing threat of violence, we’ve had to change Ines’ real name and disguise her face