On May 27, 2019, information from a civic engagement network led counter explosive units of the Colombian Army to locate in the northern Chocó department a manufacturing plant that produced antipersonnel mines and explosive devices with 563 devices ready to be planted. The arsenal belonged to the Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez clan, a subgroup of the organized crime ring, Clan del Golfo.
“The close collaboration between the community and the authorities is due to the lack of safe roads for children to get to school or for farmers to transport their harvest to commercial areas,” Colombian Army Colonel José Antonio Pérez, head of the National Center of Explosive Artifacts and Mines, told Diálogo.
In spite of efforts, the timeframe set at the Ottawa Treaty in 1997 to establish an antipersonnel mine-free territory by March 2021 won’t be met. “There are more mines in Colombia than originally thought. We have set up a daily objective, but we can't move forward any faster,” Col. Pérez said. “We requested a 10-year extension, so we can deliver a mine-free area. It's a realistic timeframe to achieve the results.”
The challenge is greater, because victims of antipersonnel mines increased by 312 percent in 2018, compared to 2017, according to federal agency Descontamina Colombia. The 2016-2021 plan prioritized 199 municipalities highly affected by mines and explosives, where 91 percent of the coca crops are located, the agency said.
“I value the soldiers’ work. A common soldier is already valuable, and their work is important, but a counter-explosive soldier is even more courageous, unique, and special,” said Col. Pérez. “On a daily basis, they deal with mines that could take their lives or leave them handicapped.”
The Army states that explosive devices, many of which are improvised, are planted indiscriminately. This is a common practice among illegal armed groups that switched from the guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to other criminal gangs. This finding demonstrates the practices the Clan del Golfo implements, the Army said.
“In other countries, wars are conventional. But conflicts are different in Latin America. Colombia isn't fighting a war against armies; it’s a conflict against criminals who don't respect any international protocol. As a NATO member, Colombia receives training in several countries. The United States, Great Britain, and France are important in transmitting knowledge about explosives,” the Army said.
By May 31, 2019, demining units had destroyed 6,637 devices and cleared antipersonnel mines and explosive devices in 352 municipalities among 19 departments. So far, authorities intervened in 161 municipalities, said Descontamina Colombia.