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Post-Conflict Colombia: Demining The Battlefield

By W. Alejandro Sanchez Nieto and Brittney J. Figueroa. W. Alejandro is an international security analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_SanchezBrittney is a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a Bachelors degree in Global Studies, and a Minor in Latin American Iberian Studies.

Colombia is entering its post-conflict era as a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) has been ratified by the Colombian Congress, while talks with the country’s other insurgent movement, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacion Nacional, ELN ) will commence in January 2017. Hence, it is natural that analysts, including the authors, are discussing what the government’s priorities should be toward maintaining peace and bringing more development and justice to post-conflict Colombia. One issue that President Juan Manuel Santos is paying particular attention to is the removal of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

mines

The Situation

The use of mines and IEDs is a standard tactic utilized by insurgent and terrorist movements worldwide (Hollywood brought this issue to light via 2008’s The Hurt Locker). When it comes to Colombia, it is impossible to adequately estimate how many mines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance lay across the South American country, as we would have to combine those that belong to the FARC, ELN and now-defunct insurgent groups.

As such, possibly the best way to assess the current situation  is by focusing on the number of casualties. In response to the problem, the Colombian government created an agency called Acción Integral Contra Minas Antipersonal (DAICMA) to track injuries and casualties caused by mines and IEDs. While overall incidents have significantly decreased since 1990, tragically, deadly explosions do still occur. For example, in 2013, two separate events of accidental mine explosions in Northern Colombia took the lives of two 13-year-old boys; one while he was walking with his grandmother, and the other during a school beach clean-up activity. Moreover, just this past November, Yisely Isarama Caisamo, a six-year-old girl from the Chocó department, tragically lost her life when she stepped on a mine. Her mother was severely injured as well, but survived. Mines have also taken the lives of animals: in January 2016, in the department of Cauca, an army dog saved the lives of 30 of his fellow soldiers when he stepped on a landmine covered by brush while attempting to secure the trail ahead.

When it comes to areas affected, most mines seem to be located in Antioquia, Nariño, and Meta. Acción Contra Minas, reports that from January 1990 to 30 November 2016, there have been 195, 121, and 63 deaths caused by mines in these departments, respectively. Of those 379 combined casualties, 106 were children. This is unfortunately not surprising, as these are areas with strong insurgent presence. The mine problem is exacerbated because areas with high amounts of mines are consistently found in rural areas where poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and lack of accessible healthcare are rampant, making it more difficult for injured people to receive quick medical treatment.

An Elevated Response

As the war comes to a close, President Santos is pushing for increased demining of the battlefield as exemplified by his 15 October pledge that in four years 21 million square meters will be cleared of mines and IEDs. In order to achieve this, the Colombian Army has created a brigade, Brigada de Desminado Humanitario, tasked with demining operations. Currently, the brigade stands at 500 troops, however the plan is to increase its number to a division, or 5000 troops, in 2017 and to double that number in 2018.

Additional troops are a welcomed initiative as mines continue to be found. For example, according to a 15 December press release by the Colombian Army, the 160th Battalion located and deactivated four antipersonnel mines in Cerro Guerrilla, in the Chocó department. The Army reported that the devices belonged to the Ernesto Che Guevara Front of the ELN.

Insurgent And International Support

President Santos’ pledge is important and commendable, and the tragic recent loss of a little girl due to an explosive, highlights the need to rid Colombia of these weapons in order to prevent further loss of life. Nevertheless, one important issue to keep in mind is that in order to achieve that 21 million square meters of clearance, the Colombian military will have to operate in territory currently controlled by the guerrillas. Hence, insurgent support will be instrumental in finding minefields, and other areas where IEDs are located, to speed up their removal. It is important to emphasize that a treaty with the FARC has been signed, but negotiations with the ELN are only starting, so it would be a gesture of goodwill by the latter insurgent group to begin helping demining operations.

We must also briefly mention the role of the international community in this process. For example, the Obama administration and the Norwegian government have launched the Global Initiative for Demining Colombia. Similarly, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) is also operating in the South American nation. As for non-governmental organizations, one major example is the British-based Halo Trust that has operated in Colombia for years.

The authors suggest that U.S. troops could be deployed to Colombia to actively help with the clearing operations. For example, the 122d Engineer Combat Battalion or the 1221st Route Clearance Company could visit the South American state and offer their expertise. These two units are singled out because they belong to the South Carolina National Guard that has been assigned to Colombia as part of the National Guard State Partnership Program. A sort of joint-mining clearance operation between the S.C. National Guard and the Colombian mining brigade would help strengthen bilateral military relations while working for a noble cause.

The Woes of Chocó

In a July 2016 press release, Acción Contra Minas outlined its goals and achievements relating to the mine situation. Some of these victories include the announcement that five municipalities in four departments:two in Antioquia, and one each in Bolivar, Meta, and Santander, were declared safe from mine contamination. Additionally, it was reported that there are currently mine-clearing operations in three other departments: Caldas, Sucre, and Tolima. The government is also working with civil society organizations as well as non-governmental organizations like the HALO Trust, Handicap International, and Ayuda Popular Noruega (APN).

While the ongoing mine-clearing efforts outlined by Acción Contra Minas are valiant, and the victories admirable, it is worrisome that Chocó, the poorest and most underdeveloped department in Colombia is not on the Desminado Humanitario 2014-2016 Plan of Action demining priority list—a list that includes 91 municipalities in 13 different departments. In many areas, mine-related incidents (both injuries and fatalities) havegenerally decreased (e.g. Antioquia, Caqueta, Tolima), while the number of incidents in Chocó hasfluctuated. For example, between 2012 and 2014, the annual total of incidents went from 16, to 10,and back to 16, respectively. In 2015, there were 17 incidents, the highest ever recorded in the department. As for 2016, the number is back down to 10.

Although the mine situation is a result of the country’s decades-old conflict, the infrastructural shortcomings of Chocó due to state neglect make the clearance of mines a more complex challenge. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Adminstrativo Nacional de Estadística; DANE), in 2015 the poverty rate in Chocó was an astounding 62.8%, with 37.1% living in extreme poverty.Given the current economic situation of Choco’s inhabitants, those injured by mines face extreme difficulty in receiving the support they need. Quibido, the department’s capital has but one hospital for 400 000 people. This problem is aggravated because the road system in Chocó remains inadequate, despite an improvement project that first began in 1967.

The continued presence of mines and IEDs has had a deep social and very human impact on civilians living in areas where mines have yet to be extracted; hence it is imperative that Bogota continues to deploy mine-clearing missions. It is the authors’ hope that in due time, Desminado Humanitario programs will accomplish the total clearing in Chocó so that the state can then focus on setting and reaching new goals of infrastructural development in the weary department.

Final Thoughts

Mines and explosives are nasty tools of war. They do not recognize friend from foe, civilian from fighter, young from old. They lay underground waiting for days, weeks, or years before they are ignited. Countries like Cambodia and Vietnam are still suffering from these unexploded weapons of war, and Afghanistan and Iraq will suffer the same fate. Sadly, Colombia will similarly have to live with mines and IEDs in the countryside for the foreseeable future, though the creation (and future expansion) of the Army’s demining brigade, as well as international support, will hopefully quicken their removal. Cooperation with the insurgents will be key to locate the mines and other explosives in order to avoid future loss of life. Mines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance have no place in 21st century Colombia.

The authors wish it to be known that the views presented in this essay are their sole responsibility do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated. 

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation.

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