An army official has touted significant progress in clearing landmines in Colombia, but their expanded use by criminal groups has undercut demining efforts and has led to a sharp rise in the number of victims in recent years.
Colonel Hoover Yarley Ríos, commander of the Humanitarian Demining Brigade (Brigada de Desminado Humanitario), reported in late September that soldiers had cleared 7,000 landmines and other explosive artifacts, according to El Nuevo Siglo.
He told the news outlet that he hoped to see “in the not too distant future a Colombia free of the suspicion of contamination by anti-personnel mines.”
Colombia has devoted more manpower to clearing the country of landmines. The number of deminers assigned to the brigade stood at some 4,500 in 2019, a massive increase from 2011, when there were only 360.
Despite these efforts, the number of people killed or wounded by landmines jumped from 57 in 2017 to 352 in 2019, according to figures from the International Red Cross.
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This year has seen a 7 percent decrease in landmine injuries and deaths compared to the same period last in 2019. The drop, though, comes amid heavy restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Demining efforts are also hindered by criminal groups, which have threatened soldiers involved in clearing landmines. In September, a widely reported video showed a group of 20 soldiers with the demining brigade held hostage in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca.
The video shows soldiers lying face down as they are lectured by an individual who identifies himself as being with the Adán Izquierdo Front, a cell made up of ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The front is one of many criminalized FARC groups, known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia, whose fighters refused to demobilize after the 2016 peace agreement with the Colombian government.
As a signatory to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, Colombia pledged to rid the country of landmines by 2021. However, the government has fallen far behind its target. The Colombian government has requested its timeline to clear the country of landmines be extended to 2025.
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While the government’s efforts have achieved progress against mines already planted in Colombia, new mines are being laid down by criminal actors, making it difficult for the increasingly threatened demining workers to keep up.
Some of the offenders replanting mines include the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group and the Urabeños, a paramilitary and drug trafficking gang, according to a recent report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación — PARES)
The two groups have been locked in a battle for control over territory in the department of Chocó since the FARC demobilized, and both groups have been accused of planting mines to prevent the other from advancing on their territory.
Last year, authorities seized almost 600 landmines belonging to Los Urabeños in Chocó.
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The increase in coca crops is also to blame for the surge in mines planted. As in the past, there remains a very strong correlation between the placement of landmines and coca plantations.
In the first six months of 2020, 78 percent landmine victims were located in just four of Colombia’s departments: Antioquia, Norte de Santander, Nariño, and Cauca.
The departments are among those with the highest levels of coca cultivation, and new landmines have reportedly been planted to prevent current coca crop eradication campaigns.