With another 37 municipalities mine-free, Colombia drops from second to tenth on the list of countries with the most mine victims.
The Colombian National Army declared another 37 municipalities mine-free. The announcement took place April 4th, on the United Nations’ International Anti-Personnel Mine Awareness Day.
“Today, we take an unprecedented leap in the task of demining Colombia,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated at the official ceremony in Puerto Inírida, in southeastern Colombia. “We now completed 33 percent of the baseline total set out in the 2016-2021 strategic plan, which identified 673 municipalities as being contaminated by mines to some degree.”
The Army’s First Brigade of Humanitarian Demining Engineers cleared 43,415 square kilometers of anti-personnel mines. The task required 4,930 certified personnel, 3,061 deminers, 36 monitors, 165 supervisors, and 948 leaders, among others, according to a brigade press release.
“With these results, Colombia drops from being the second country in the world with the most anti-personnel mine victims to the tenth,” Army Colonel Giovanni Rodríguez, commander of the First Brigade of Humanitarian Demining Engineers, told Diálogo. “With these municipalities cleared, we begin to see that the government will keep its promise to the world, as the number of victims drops compared with the past.”
The Ottawa Convention
When Colombia signed the Ottawa Convention in 1997, it agreed not to use, manufacture, or transport anti-personnel mines. Ratified in 2000, the agreement dictated that Colombia establish goals to free the country from mines. “Things were complicated during the first decade because of the armed conflict,” Col. Rodríguez said.
The task began in 2004 with one platoon. By 2006, it grew to involve an entire company, and, in 2009, the 60th Demining Batallion Colonel Gabino Gutiérrez was formed (BIDES, in Spanish). “BIDES operated from 2009 to 2016. When the peace accords were signed, its commitments included greater urgency regarding humanitarian demining,” Col. Rodríguez said.
Colombia’s goal is to be mine-free by 2021, requiring that 51 million square meters of territory be cleared. “In 2017, we declared 13 municipalities mine-free, and, in 2018, we completed 37 more [by April],” Col. Rodríguez said. “We hope to reach a similar number in the following quarter. Our goal is to have 119 mine-free municipalities by December .”
The cleared municipalities are distributed among 14 departments. The latest occurred on April 19th in the municipality of Granada, in western Antioquia. The Army’s demining personnel dedicated eight years to clearing the municipality’s 485,000 square meters of territory.
“During those eight years, 190 explosive devices were destroyed,” Col. Rodríguez said. “Manual demining [is] important because it allows us to determine that there was a high level of contamination, and the result directly benefits the 9,800 inhabitants of Granada.”
In each municipality, contact is made first with civil authorities and victim networks, who have statistics on persons affected by anti-personnel mines. “The community’s support is really the most important thing. Our mission is to free them from antipersonnel mine threats,” Army Second Lieutenant Laura Melisa Martínez García, head of the Community Networks and Non-Technical Studies of the First Brigade of Humanitarian Demining Engineers, told Diálogo. “We hold community meetings to explain the entire demining process so that they can tell us where there’s contamination.”
Deminers then work eight-hour days in dangerous territory using that information. “[Deminers] may activate a device at any time. With great professionalism and care, they begin to check the land [for devices], centimeter by centimeter,” 2nd Lt. Martínez said.
Then, various government programs, such as land restitution for those displaced by violence, are brought to the demined territories. “Our mission is to save lives,” 2nd Lt. Martínez concluded. “For us, what matters is that our work makes the community safe and, obviously, that our country thrives once again.”