In mid-August, the Colombian Army announced that three areas in the east and center of the country were free of mines, making great progress toward its goal to clear 119 municipalities by the end of 2018. The Humanitarian Demining Engineer Brigade (BRDEH, in Spanish) cleared La Pradera municipality in Valle del Cauca department, as well as Villavicencio and Fuente de Oro municipalities in Meta department.
“We cleared 37 municipalities in the first quarter and 35 [in the] second quarter,” Colombian Army Colonel Giovanny Rodríguez León, BRDEH commander, told Diálogo. “About 70 percent of our goal has been met in the first half of the year, and we expect to clear 50 municipalities in the second half.”
The Colombian government’s goal is to free the country of antipersonnel mines by 2021. According to Descontamina Colombia, an office of the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia’s Administrative Department, the country has 264 municipalities and two departments free of mines.
Three mine-free municipalities
After six months of work from BRDEH’s Sixth Humanitarian Demining Engineer Battalion, La Pradera municipality was declared mine-free on August 17th. Soldiers cleared the last 12,700-square-meter area through manual clearance. According to the Army, the Sixth Battalion successfully cleared more than 91,000 square meters in Valle del Cauca department.
On August 1st, the Fourth Humanitarian Demining Engineer Battalion finished clearing the municipalities of Fuente de Oro and Villavicencio in Meta department. The work benefited 30,000 inhabitants.
In Villavicencio, units investigated and identified 27 areas with mine contamination risks, where 22 victims of antipersonnel mines were identified. In these areas, the battalion cleared more than 32,00 square meters.
Accidents involving antipersonnel mines were recorded in three areas of Fuente de Oro. After collecting information, soldiers started removing and destroying the explosive artifacts.
“An interinstitutional agency made up of the [Colombian] Ministry of Defense and the director of Descontamina Colombia, conducts identification of areas according to criteria they use to carry out mine clearance,” Colombian Army First Sergeant John Alexander Ramírez Antonio, a member of BRDEH’s non-technical survey team, told Diálogo. “Once areas or municipalities where intervention is likely to take place are identified, they are assigned to the brigade.”
Descontamina Colombia defines non-technical survey as the collection of information and data analysis obtained from available sources, as well as investigation on the ground to collect new evidence. This work is part of the first phase of humanitarian mine clearance.
“The non-technical survey consists of going to every house in every small town and investigating based on the information obtained,” 1st Sgt. Ramírez said. “Depending on what is found in each visit, with national standard criteria and operational procedures, we determine whether it’s a potential danger for the community.”
Socialization work, carried out with regional authorities, local Community Action Boards, and villagers, is fundamental to identify the areas where explosive artifacts are planted. Occasionally, locals even point out the places farmers, who abandoned their land, avoided.
“Illegal groups planted the mines,” 1st Sgt. Ramírez said. “There are no maps or registries of how artifacts were installed, and the kind of device used. Any item you find might be an explosive artifact.”
The second phase of humanitarian mine clearance consists of a technical survey, a thorough investigation to confirm or cancel the area in question. In the third phase, experts begin clearance to remove and destroy mines using three methods: manual, mechanic—with minesweeping equipment—or canine.
“We now work with minesweeping equipment in [the departments of] Caquetá and Meta; [and] with canines in Caquetá, Putumayo, and Valle del Cauca,” Col. Rodríguez said. “In 90 percent [of the territories], the clearance is done manually.” Minesweeping equipment can cover up to 3,200 square meters in an hour, the officer said, while the manual method covers between 6 and 16 square meters a day.
According to Descontamina Colombia, between 1990 and July 31, 2018, a total of 11,615 troops and civilians were victims of explosive artifacts in the country; 2,287 of them died. Authorities destroyed more than 6,000 explosive artifacts in that period.
At a public hearing on July 31st, Sergio Bueno Aguirre, director of Descontamina Colombia, announced that the number of victims dropped drastically in 2018, thanks to the Peace Accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Between 2015 and 2018, Bueno said, the number of victims decreased by 60 percent.
“Being able to meet the country’s goal to be mine-free and fulfill its commitment to the Ottawa Treaty has been one of this government’s priorities,” said Bueno. For his part, Col. Rodríguez looks forward to the future and projects to come. “Antipersonnel mines highly affected our farmers. This practice caused displacements and affected regional economies due to insecurity about going to the fields,” Col. Rodríguez said. “After humanitarian mine clearance is done, other state projects will be implemented, such as crop substitution, land restitution, and productive projects.”