WHERE WE WORK.
You may be surprised by the countries we work in. And that is exactly why we have chosen to work there - to bring light to the hidden but very prevalent issue of child soldiers in these countries.
Mexico is a battleground North America cannot afford to ignore but often does. The Mexican drug-funded gang wars have crossed into Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
Drugs are crossing the U.S. border at increasing rates. Teenagers traffic drugs as “mules,” and are even armed with military-grade weapons to protect their “precious” goods. In the mountains, native and mestizo children harvest marijuana and poppy crops. They also work as armed guards for these mountain-valley farms and are caught in cartel crossfire during harvest time.
In the city slums, children between six and ten years old are used as “hawks” to pedal information and conceal drug deals happening on street corners. As they mature, they are offered a sense of belonging within one of the various drug-addicted gangs that often act as hit men for cartels. Often when adolescents murder someone, the charges are quickly dropped, and once more they end up on the streets. Young girls, as the gangs have found, make particularly cruel and effective assassins, being able to access people and locations that males cannot.
We call these children the “cartel kids.” PROJECT AK-47 operates programs to reach out to them before it is too late. We also try to help those ready to walk away from the violence and fear.
UPPER MEKONG REGION (BURMA).
(Myanmar, N. Thailand, N. Laos and Yunnan, China)
The Upper Mekong Region is ethnically diverse, with easily over 150 groups and sub-groups, and thousands of dialects. Most of the conflicts are in Myanmar (Burma) but the impact crosses over to many of the related ethnics minorities and the surrounding countries they are in. If you walked among these smiling and resilient people, it might be hard to imagine that Myanmar may contain more child soldiers than any other country in the world.
There are many non-state armed groups (NASGs) in the Upper Mekong Region reflecting the country’s diversity. Some of these groups, like the United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Shan State Army South (SSA-S) use child soldiers. Even the Burmese army uses child soldiers. Estimates range from conservative numbers of 5,000 to local eye witness accounts of tens of thousands in training in places like the UWSA. Neighboring Asian countries have opposed outside involvement in the sporadic armed conflicts between SPDC and ethnic minorities, believing it is Myanmar’s internal affair.
We have have worked with children who were as young as three years old living in military barracks and undergoing training. It usually takes an ethnic boy of at least eleven or twelve years old to handle a weapon effectively, but many cultures still believe that war is honorable and children are trained in their early developmental years as warriors – long before puberty.
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The UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict believes that three groups in the Philippines remain liable for children in war zones: The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the New People’s Army (NPA), and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). To this list, we would also add the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP -NPA) and “pangayao” tribal wars.
The Philippines is a tropical archipelago of more than 7,000 beautiful islands and over 170 spoken languages. Even though the vast majority of Filipinos are peaceful, the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity can create long-term conflicts. Cycles of violence become established in many of the smaller tribal and clan-like groups because of the belief that conflicts are best resolved through vengeance.
Through careful conversations with former child soldiers and regional governmental authorities, one thing has become obvious: there are probably thousands more child soldiers in the Philippines than what is currently believed. The situation is critical. Children are at risk not only of death or injury, but also of being locked into deadly cycles of generational violence.