The National Times - Colombia guerrillas lure youth on TikTok

Colombia guerrillas lure youth on TikTok

Colombia guerrillas lure youth on TikTok
Colombia guerrillas lure youth on TikTok / Photo: © AFP

With promises of wealth and images glorifying fighters among vast fields of coca leaves, Colombia's modern-day guerrillas are urging young people to join their ranks via TikTok.

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"The Jaime Martinez Front welcomes you, youngster," reads one post by a faction of the EMC -- rebels who broke away from the Marxist FARC guerrilla group when they signed a peace pact with the government in 2016.

The EMC has been holding stop-start peace talks with the government of President Gustavo Petro since the end of 2023, all while spreading propaganda promising new recruits a better life.

The social media posts resonate in a country roiled by half a century of armed conflict and where poverty affects 46 percent of the rural population, according to the most recent national statistics.

On TikTok, and to a lesser extent Facebook, AFP found dozens of accounts and hundreds of publications and communities spreading propaganda for the EMC.

The guerrilla group counts among 3,500 members and is mainly financed through narcotrafficking, according to military intelligence statements.

"I want to join" a young woman commented on a TikTok video set to Mexican corrido drug ballads.

The user who posted the video replies that she should contact him via "private" message, one of a dozen such interactions.

"I served in the military... and now I would like to pick up a rifle again," commented a man on a post where uniformed men are seen training in the middle of a misty forest.

- Ninja and coca emojis -

Guerrillas and narcos in the country recruited 110 minors last year, and this year 23 have already signed up, according to the Ombudsman's office.

For rural youth with few opportunities, the armed groups offer a prospect of financial stability, but many also "end up stuck there escaping domestic violence" or other armed groups, Alejandro Jaramillo, a researcher at New York University, told AFP.

"The narrative has always been that the guerrilla (group) is going to become your family," he adds.

There is a network of profiles associated with the EMC who follow each other online and share posts with each other.

With thousands of followers, they share images of men in fatigues on horseback or crossing rivers, accompanied by motivational and revolutionary messages.

The use of emojis reveals a common language: a green leaf refers to coca crops, according to experts, in the world's biggest cocaine producer.

The accounts share photos and videos of the vast areas of bright green coca crops.

Various users also employ emojis of the Colombian flag, or the covered face of a ninja, a "symbol of secrecy", said Jaramillo.

- Old guerrillas, modern methods -

Clement Roux, a researcher at the Center for Media Analysis (CARISM) at the Paris-Pantheon-Assas University, said the posts draw from classic FARC propaganda, using their logos, mentioning historic commanders, and "glorifying the guerrilla lifestyle."

But they are made for social media: slick, aesthetic and targeted at young people, with uniformed, armed influencers who snap selfies in the middle of conflict.

Today "every fighter has a cellphone" with which to produce content, said Roux.

Juana Cabezas, a researcher with the Indepaz thinktank, said the fighters are "seducing" young people by talking about "jewelry, money, women, cars," and a coca economy that "guarantees a fixed income."

Adding to the flashy narco aesthetic associated with notorious druglord Pablo Escobar are messages alluding to ideas of social mobility and revenge, in one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.

The content presents "a way of life where money, drinks and women are trophies" and, at the same time, "it is combined in a very curious way" with the old FARC's "collective imagination of the class struggle," said Roux.

Social media propaganda serves as both a recruitment tool and a form of creating "internal cohesion" among fighters who may be spread out, making them "feel part of a bigger organization", said the expert.