The seizure of 563 anti-personnel landmines suspected of belonging to the Gaitanistas has fueled speculation that the powerful Colombian drug trafficking organization has renewed a notorious practice long associated with guerrilla forces.
Authorities dismantled the alleged Gaitanistas landmine production site in a rural area of Riosucio in Chocó department, near the country's border with Panama, El Colombiano reported.
All 563 landmines were disarmed, though authorities said the devices were set to be deployed in the territory where the group is fighting guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) for control. There are also strong suspicions that the ELN has deployed landmines as part of this same conflict.
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General Juan Carlos Ramírez explained that “the Urabeños were intending to use [the mines] to cover their drug trafficking corridors in northern Chocó [as well as protecting] cocaine paste production and cocaine chlorohydrate."
The mines were also likely to be used to scare people living in communities along the border between Chocó and Antioquia, where the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), have been fighting with the ELN since 2018 to take over territory left behind by the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), according to El Tiempo.
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Prior to the Colombian government and the FARC signing a peace agreement in 2016, Colombia had one highest landmine mortality and injury rates in the world.
The Office of Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, the institution responsible for demining operations in the country, reported that from 1990 until March 31, 2019, Colombia tallied 11,375 victims of landmines, 2,293 of whom died.
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The number of people who suffered landmine injuries dropped to 89 in 2016 and then to 57 in 2017, the lowest number recorded. But incidents tripled in 2018, according to the Red Cross.
And while the Colombian government tallied 178 cases of landmine victims in 2018, the Red Cross counted more, with 221 cases. So far this year, 58 incidents have been reported.
While a growing number of municipalities in Colombia have been declared free of landmines, forests and nature reserves in Chocó and Antioquia remain peppered with them.
Some of these mines may be new, with the ex-FARC Mafia or the AGC once again planting them to protect drug routes and coca cultivations. And communities in these regions suffer the consequences, exposing children to the deadly devices and confining families to their villages.