As a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty, Colombia has pledged to clear all landmines by 2021. But there’s no way to do that without civilian help, said Daniel Ávila Camacho,director of the presidential antipersonnel mine program, which oversees demining efforts.
Even so, Ávila said the government is proceeding cautiously. The FARC and smaller ELN guerrillas have been known to retaliate against communities that identify or remove minefields, so efforts are being made to show these programs are purely humanitarian.
“We’ll be working minefields that no longer have any strategic value to the FARC or ELN and have been abandoned, but are still a risk to anyone who goes through the area,” he said. “Of course, civilian demining has risks... But these organizations have experience and we have clear ground rules.”
The government says 31 out of the country’s 32 departments have some degree of land-mine contamination, and cleaning up swaths of the countryside is critical to the administration’s plans to return thousands of acres to farmers who have been forced off their land by the violence.
Colombia’s guerrillas are experts at creating improvised explosives. Some of the quiebra patas use syringe plungers as triggers, others rely on clothespins and tripwires. Many are crude, but they’re effective.
“Mines have become for the FARC what aviation is for the Armed Forces of Colombia,” said Álvaro Jiménez Millán, national manager of the Colombian Campaign Against Mines. “They are a strategic weapon, and the FARC are manufacturing them intensively.”
Even during a unilateral cease-fire that the guerrillas called from November though January, there were indications that the group was still planting mines, authorities said.
While the guerrillas plant the mines targeting the military, it’s civilians who often fall into the trap. In recent days, a 17-year-old pregnant woman and her boyfriend in Putumayo province stumbled across a mine as they wandered into a field looking for a cell-phone signal. Three teenagers in Antioquia hit a land mine as they were coming home at night, leaving one of them dead. A 10-year-old boy in Cauca province stepped on a land mine, blinding his left eye. During the first 21 days of this year, there were four civilian fatalities and 12 injuries due to land mines.
The mention of a bomb squad can conjure up images of soldiers in bulky body armor diving away from explosions. But the work looks more like slow-motion gardening. Trainees methodically wave metal detectors over the dirt then gingerly dig at the ground, snipping at roots and pieces of grass with shears as they inch forward. A fully trained de-miner might cover 12 square feet a day. At that rate, it would take six days to clear a basketball court.
But the process works. Halo’s 8,000 worldwide employees cleared more than 65,000 land mines last year and had only one, nonfatal, accident, Salisbury said.
“Obviously, one accident is far too many,” he said. “But for the benefit of preventing 65,000 accidents from occurring, I think that is well worth the time and investment that we put into it.”