Colombian National Army Trains 5,000 Service Members for Humanitarian Demining

By Dialogo
June 13, 2016

To accelerate and optimize the work of humanitarian demining in Colombia, the National Army began the first phase of training in May for 5,000 service members who will make up the Humanitarian Demining Brigades. The National Army plans to train another 5,000 in 2017 to reach its goal of ridding the country of Anti-Personnel Land Mines (APLMs) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) by 2021.

Humanitarian demining is intended to remove explosives so the territory can be reoccupied by the community. However, APLMs and UXO present a challenge in the Andean nation, according to Colonel Omar Leal Estupiñán, the 60th Demining Battalion Commander.

“The topography, the tropical vegetation, the weather conditions with constant rainfall, the population density, and the social circumstances caused by the conflict, among other circumstances, make the demining operation more complicated in Colombia than it is in other places,” Col. Leal said. “Though Colombia follows international standards, we in the Army have had to develop our own humanitarian demining model to attack the problem effectively. As a result, it has been a slow and costly process.”

During Colombia’s armed conflict, particularly since the 1990s, the National Liberation Army and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia used APLMs as a weapon of war. Colombia has the second highest number of land mines in the world, after Afghanistan, according to the Bureau for Integrated Action against Anti-Personnel Mines (DAIMA). All departments in Colombia, with the exception of Isla de San Andrés, have had Military and/or civilian victims of APLMs and UXO. In fact, from 1990 to April 30th, APLMs killed or wounded 11,418 victims throughout the country. They are especially prevalent in rural communities that are home to farmers, tenant farmers, and persons of African and indigenous descent.

The devices also violate International Humanitarian Law. The use of APLMs violates the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians and the prohibition against using weapons that could cause excessive damage or unnecessary suffering, according to DAIMA. They also fail to comply with international and national legislation.

Additionally, the presence and/or suspected existence of mine fields constitute an obstacle to human rights and overcoming poverty. The mines impose social limitations and lead to personal circumstances that involve a lack of opportunity to live a valuable life.

Humanitarian demining in Colombia

The first requirement for demining an area is to prohibit interference from illegal armed groups and preventing recontamination. There are two types of demining: Military and humanitarian. The former refers to deactivation or controlled detonation of mines so that Troops can advance. Humanitarian demining is aimed at returning roads, paths, and land to the population that had to stop traversing the areas due to APLMs.

In Colombia, humanitarian demining operations are the responsibility of the Military, through the 60th Demining Battalion, and the following accredited humanitarian demining civilian organizations: the Marine Explosives and Demining Group, Handicap International, the Norwegian People’s Aid, and the HALO Trust, which is the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organization.

The 60th Humanitarian Demining Battalion was created in 2009 and has 600 service members divided into 10 Army Manual Demining platoons; one Mechanical Demining platoon, and nine Human-Canine Teams. Thanks to their efforts, the municipalities of San Carlos (Antioquia), El Dorado (Meta), Zambrano (Bolívar), San Francisco (Antioquia), and San Vicente de Chucurí (Santander) are now free of ALPMs or UXO.

“It has been very gratifying to return these five areas to the communities, but there is still a lot to be done,” Col. Leal explained. “The Battalion has been at work for seven years. We have already passed through the learning phase to become experts on the subject, so we can speed up the efforts by training new personnel. Training 5,000 men this year and another 5,000 next year allows us to think that freeing all Colombian territory is a real possibility.”

The basic training course lasts for three months, during which time the Soldiers learn the concept of humanitarian demining, demining techniques for different areas and populations, and the workings of the different units in the Humanitarian Demining Battalion, among other doctrine. Currently, the Demining Battalion has operations in the departments of Antioquia (Cocorná, Granada, Guatapé, and San Luis), Caldas (Samaná), and Santander (Sabana de Torres and Carmen de Chucurí).

In addition, the Humanitarian Demining Battalion is conducting a pilot project established by the Negotiations Table in Havana, Cuba, in March 2015 to develop effective and tiered humanitarian demining operations. The Battalion is working in the Orejón borough in the municipality of Briceño (Antioquia) and in the Santa Helena sector in the municipality of Mesetas (Meta), within the framework of the Clearing and Decontamination Agreement.

Demining, step by step

DAIMA has established three phases for demining:

Non-technical study: Involves collection and analysis of information from all available sources that are liable to possess data on APLM and UXO contamination. National Army personnel survey residents to determine which zones are suspected of being mined. In addition, they investigate the land from an area considered to be safe to collect new evidence to confirm or disprove the community’s suspicions. This step is very important and requires a space for dialogue with the communities and the social organizations within their areas of influence.

Technical study: Involves carrying out an in-depth investigation through physically invasive actions to confirm or disprove danger in an area with the possible presence of APLMs and UXO. If their presence is confirmed, the danger area is marked and cleared.

Clearing: The process of removing and/or destroying all mines or wartime explosives in a specified area.

Manual Demining

For seven years, National Army Private John Fredy Capador has been part of the Demining Battalion. Using a metal detector and digging equipment, Pvt. Capador locates and marks the site of an APLM or UXO so the devices can be destroyed or neutralized by experts.

Manual demining is the most frequently employed type and requires great bravery from the Soldier performing the process, because he comes into direct contact with the mine, and puts his life at very high risk. Each deminer is assigned a one-meter wide strip and moves forward, clearing away the underbrush and using the metal detector every 25 centimeters to improve the Soldiers’ safety. On average, a Soldier clears 20 meters a day.

“Our work takes a lot of time, because we have painstaking security protocols in place to ensure the area is safe,” Pvt. Capador said. “Additionally, we need to visit all the boroughs of a municipality, which sometimes takes several hours by foot, because there is limited access.”

Mechanical demining uses minesweepers, manned or remotely controlled, that destroy mines in accordance with international standards. The equipment consists of small, armored tanks that remove land to a depth of 15 centimeters, but they cannot be used on all types of land, so their use is more limited.

Demining with Human-Canine Teams is still in the implementation phase. Trained explosive-sniffing dogs lead the way, ensuring it is safe for the Troops to advance. The Soldiers who work with the dogs undergo an additional year of training to become handlers.

Integrated action against APLMs

Colombia has developed a system to deal with APLMs and UXO in an integrated fashion. Humanitarian Demining is part of the Integrated Action program spearheaded by DAIMA. The Ministry for the Post-Conflict facilitates the development of other national policies related to land ownership rights, restitution and title, the return of displaced populations, recovery of areas taken for illicit crops, and other rural development policies.

The Integrated Action against Anti-Personnel Mines’ goal (AICMA) is to reduce the social, economic, and environmental impact of APLMs and UXO planted or abandoned in Colombia’s rural areas during the course of the armed conflict.

The initiative dates to 2000, when Colombia established the fight against APLMs with the ratification of the Ottawa Convention, a treaty in which 133 nations promised to prohibit the acquisition, production, storage, or use of anti-personnel mines in their country. The treaty was signed in 1997 before the Secretary General of the United Nations and was ratified in 2000. Today, 162 countries are signatories.

Within this legal context, the AICMA was created as a standard, technical, and operational concept to reduce the risk from mines to levels that would permit people to live safely and enjoy economic, social, and healthcare developments free from the limitations imposed by the presence of such devices and to meet the victims’ needs.