SANTIAGO, Chile — Second Cpl. Arturo Rivera was deactivating mines along Chile’s northern border with Peru when an anti-personnel mine exploded, injuring him badly.
Fortunately, the 25-year-old soldier survived — but the Aug. 14 accident was only the latest reminder that after nearly four decades, the existence of landmines in the border region is an unresolved issue.
On May 26, an anti-personnel mine exploded near the border when a passing vehicle drove over it. According to Chilean police, the vehicle was apparently on its way to Peru, loaded with contraband. The blast, which killed one person, took place in the Chacalluta area, where only 16.2 percent of landmines have been removed, according to the National Demining Commission (CNAD in Spanish).
Even though such accidents keep happening, the process of landmine removal has been slower than anticipated. Under the Ottawa Convention, Chile was given eight years to deactivate the estimated 122,000 anti-personnel and 60,000 anti-tank mines installed mainly along its borders.
However, in late November 2011, President Sebastian Piñera requested an eight-year extension, giving the country until March 2020 to get rid of the mines.
Heavy flooding dislodges hundreds of mines
The problem became more acute following heavy rains in February, which caused the Lluta River to flood, dislodging hundreds of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines along the border with Peru. Two mines planted during the 1970s washed onto the Pan-American Highway, forcing authorities to close the road; soldiers later detonated the mines.
“This is a precise job,” Ximena Valcarce, acting governor of Arica and Parinacota, told ADN Radio. “It is very tedious and takes a long time.”
The arrival of Defense Minister Andres Allamand in Arica and the closure of the Chacalluta border pass underscored the seriousness of the Quebrado Escritos landmine emergency. Allamand said that during the last five years, special Chilean Army and Navy units had stepped up their mine removal operations.
Separately, Col. Javier Iturriaga, commander of the Rancagua regiment, said in a communiqué that the floodwaters had dislodged 157 landmines, including 15 anti-tank mines and 142 anti-personnel mines.
New legislation to compensate landmine victims
Chilean lawmakers will soon consider a proposed bill to help those injured by landmines.
“We have taken an additional step … to compensate victims of these devices,” Finance Minister Felipe Larraín told reporters. “This is what we have done, covering not only the obligations of the Ottawa Convention but those of the Oslo Convention, which deals with cluster bombs, and also with other international accords requiring countries with accidents originating from military explosives to provide a system of assistance.”
The proposed bill offers victims monetary compensation as well as educational grants, access to social and labor resources, and free medical and psychological care. Allamand is to explain the legislation to the Senate Defense Commission at an Oct. 2 hearing.
Sen. Guido Girardi, of Chile’s Party for Democracy, is urging that landmine removal be speeded up.
“We are in peacetime and there is no justification for the country’s population and especially tourists to be anywhere there are land mines. We ask Minister Allamand that this be a priority and that Chile become, in the shortest time possible, a country without land mines,” said Girardi. “We know it is expensive and difficult, but these risks are not justified.”
NGO: Landmines have killed 150 people since 1970s
The Chilean Army and Navy are the institutions in charge of landmine removal, while the president’s National Landmine Removal Commission is supposed to coordinate their activities in accordance with the Ottawa Convention. In addition, several private civilian firms in Chile remove landmines under authorization from the Ministry of Defense.
Col. Juan Mendoza, the commission’s executive secretary, said that “to date we have removed approximately 25 percent [of all mines], but many factors, especially climate and weather, have prevented us from moving at the speed we would have wanted.”
Some 150 people, including 70 civilians, have been killed or maimed since the landmines were planted, according to Centro Zona Minada, a non-governmental organization.
The NGO’s director, Elir Rojas Calderón, said at least 60,000 devices were planted in the Quebrada Escritos area alone. All told, he estimated, 100,000 anti-personnel mines, more than 60,000 anti-tank mines and “an undetermined number of unexploded or abandoned military explosives and cluster bombs” are scattered across six regions of Chile.
Rojas: Chile has “ethical obligation” to remove landmines
Chile, along with Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, has promised to comply with the Ottawa Convention, which prohibits the use, storage, production and transfer of landmines.
In Peru, said Rojas, more than 20,000 landmines were planted along electrical transmission towers and the perimeters of prisons. He said that in October 1973, then-President Augusto Pinochet — fearing an attack by Peruvian forces — ordered thousands of mines to be planted on Chile’s border with Peru.
“It was the same situation in 1978 during the Beagle Channel dispute in Chile’s extreme southern region, in the face of a possible attack by Argentina,” he said. “Areas bordering Bolivia and northern Argentina were later planted with landmines as well.”
Chile must comply with the Ottawa Convention, said Rojas, because it has “an ethical and legal obligation to eliminate the risk to people, the environment, wildlife and the country’s development.”