Drawn to gangs in her teen rebellion, Colombian girl finds her true self in new faith

Today Ines is a different person.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Guns and the promise of a good life entered Ines's life when she was only 13 years old.

The young and rebellious girl from Colombia's rural southern Guaviare district 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," Ines, now 16, told the Christian charity Open Doors.

"My behaviour towards my parents was terrible. Finally, there came the point where all I wanted to do was to leave and join an armed group."

Guaviare district is a centre for criminal armed groups. These 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's 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."

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."

Ines told Open Doors how close she came 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."

However, her parents intervened before it was too late and sent her 400 kilometres away to Open Doors' Children's Centre in the Colombian capital, Bogota.

"My parents wanted me to correct my behaviour. 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 shared with Open Doors at the Children's Centre.

She remembers that when she first arrived, she did not want anything to do with God.

"If my behaviour with my parents was bad, my behaviour 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 Centre where Ines went. Some of the children live there until the high school graduation, while others stay even beyond that. In addition to school activities, they learn vocational and technical skills, working with land and animals, cooking and hairdressing, music and computing. But above all, it is an environment resembling home, where they are loved, cared for, thriving, and growing in faith.

"Being here in the Children's Centre helped me a lot to change," Ines says. "My behaviour with my parents is better, and my spiritual life has also changed. Now I am very different."

Colombia is number 30 on Open Doors' World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. 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.

Church leaders are often threatened, harassed and extorted, especially in the rural and most neglected areas. Some leaders have even been murdered. In most cases, this violence is the direct result of church leaders denouncing corruption and violence, working among youth, trying to hold them back from gangs and opposing criminal activities in sermons, defying the de facto authority of local criminal groups. Church communities are regularly subjected to abuse and intimidation.

Open Doors UK & Ireland is a Christian charity that supports persecuted Christian across the world. They work with local partners to distribute Bibles and other Christian resources, as well as providing support and vocational training to affected communities.