Colombia’s landmine crisis
by Ana María Arango Domínguez December 2009

Anti-personnel mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) kill or injure approximately 1,000 Colombians each year, more than any other country in the world. For this reason, the government and the international community have sought to stop the use of these weapons and to assist Colombians affected by them. The Office of the Vice-President has developed a special programme to address the issue, and acts as a centre for the coordination of the National Inter-Sectoral Commission for Unified Action against Anti-Personnel Mines, a group comprising 14 state institutions. In addition, the government has passed a significant number of laws and established programmes, processes and procedures related to mine problems, as well as adopting international norms prohibiting the production, storage and use of these weapons. Several national and international NGOs also work to support mine victims and to strengthen the government’s capacity to tackle the problem. Despite these efforts, however, the illegal armed groups in Colombia’s long-running conflict continue to plant mines across the country, with devastating effects on the civilian population.

A country in fear

Colombia’s armed conflict has been bleeding the country dry for over five decades. Guerrillas and paramilitary organisations are present in 31 of the country’s 32 departments. These armed groups sustain their military operations by controlling land and people, often through the use of IEDs. The close relationship between Colombia’s armed conflict and drug-trafficking has further increased the use of landmines as armed groups deploy them to control land and enable the cultivation, processing and distribution of narcotics. Measures to restrict and prevent drug-trafficking adopted by the Colombian government, including the manual eradication of crops and the destruction of laboratories for drug processing, have encouraged the use of explosive devices as armed groups attempt to protect crops and laboratories.[1]

As anti-personnel mines are costly and difficult to obtain, guerrillas and paramilitar groups tend to prefer ‘homemade’ ones (or IEDs), which are much less stable and more difficult to find than conventional landmines. These weapons are commonly directed at a specific target. In other words, their placement follows assessments by armed groups regarding the passage of enemy troops. As a result, the devices that affect civilians are generally isolated remnants that are left after an atack. This does not, however, diminish the suffering that these weapons cause, and can make it more difficult to remove the remaining mines.

The Colombian government’s military offensive against illegal armed groups has resulted in an increase in the use of these weapons; as armed groups are forced to be more mobile, identifying the location of minefields becomes more difficult. The battlefield has become ill-defined, overlapping with civilian settings, including population centres and roads used by civilians and in which combatants are not easily identifiable.

Anti-personnel mines and IEDs, along with the wider effects of the armed conflict, have created a sense of fear among part of the population. People become afraid to travel around their region, and as a result have restricted access to basic public services such as healthcare and education, as well as access to fundamental needs such as food and water. When the detrimental effects of landmines intersect with other aspects of the conflict, such as displacement, recruitment and isolation, the crisis becomes unsustainable for many affected populations.

In Colombia, there has been a continuous and increasing lack of respect for the rights and liberties of people not actively forming part of the armed conflict, while the ‘dramatic spiral of violence that affects all sectors of society undermines the very foundations of the State and has been felt by the international community as a whole’.[2] Landmines, and with them massacres, murders, kidnaps and detentions, all combine to create an atmosphere of fear, intimidating thousands of Colombians every day and forcing them to abandon their land and their past. The fact that victimisation by landmines and forced displacement go hand in hand is not surprising. More than three million Colombians are displaced, and an unknown number of these people are also victims of anti-personnel mines and IEDs.

Responding in the midst of conflict

The army is the only entity authorised in practice to initiate demining operations in Colombia, yet this is problematic in that these operations often follow a military rationale rather than a humanitarian one. For example, a controlled detonation of a mine that has been discovered by the army during a military incursion will be perceived as a warning to armed groups that state troops are nearby. Likewise, if the army discovers the markings that armed actors use to establish the limits of minefields these are not made public. An important step forward was taken at the beginning of 2009, when the Colombian government accepted the participation of civilian organisations in demining processes. This should help ensure that demining operations start to follow a humanitarian rationale rather than a military one, but more needs to be done to implement this policy into practice.

 Responding to the landmine situation is made difficult by the nature of the conflict in Colombia, which is both fluid and dynamic in terms of its intensity and location. There are regions that have been controlled by one or various illegal armed groups for many years, but change hands over time. There are regions that have been ‘recovered’ by the state, but even these will often relapse into conflict. For example, although the government has recently declared to have defeated the insurgents in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and in the Montes de Maria, both regions have been involved since in new armed confrontations. In other areas of the country the conflict is less fluid and is characterised by continuous combat. In this way, in Colombia, there are simultaneously regions in state of crisis, transition and recovery. As a result, assistance may be provided to some landmine victims, but as the nature of conflict changes these people are often affected again. Meanwhile, demining efforts that aim to reduce the risk that civilians face must contend with the fact that non-estate armed groups continue to plant landmines.

The challenge is, therefore, enormous. In the midst of conflict, the state must eliminate the fear and damage produced by landmines. To that end, the state must initiate expensive demining processes, while guerrillas and paramilitary groups continue to plant explosive devices. The state also needs to identify and assist victims of landmines, although many are in hiding due to fear or are simply invisible among the many victims of the conflict and the wider population. The state also needs to guarantee the right to restitution to those affected by the violence, and guarantee that their victimisation will not be repeated – all while the state continues to participate in a conflict that is unlikely to end in the near future.

 

Ana María Arango Domínguez is Project Manager at the Information Management and Mines Action Program – iMMAP in Colombia.

 


[1] For more information on drug-trafficking and the armed conflict, see Ana María Díaz and Fabio Sánchez, Geografía de los Cultivos Ilícitos y Conflicto Armado en Colombia. Documentos, CEDE 002766: Universidad de los Andes-CEDE, 2004.

[2] Organisation of American States and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Comunicado de Prensa No. 20/97, Informe anual de la comisión interamericana de derechos humanos 1997, OEA/Ser.LVII.98, Doc. 7 rev. Washington DC: OEA, 1998, p. 1,153.

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