Colombia ended 2017 one step closer to its goal of declaring the nation free of anti-personnel mines by 2021. In the final three months of 2017, the Military Forces of Colombia stepped up their demining efforts in the department of Nariño, which borders Ecuador.
“In November and December, we found mines that had been planted a couple of weeks before, in anticipation of Colombian Army troops’ advances,” Brigadier General Alberto Tafur García, commander of the Colombian National Army’s Pegasus Task Force (FTP, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “October was an important month because some 45 mines were found, all of them in and around illicit crops. That month, the number of mines in crops increased.”
In areas where narcotrafficking persists, service members manually carry out eradication duties to remove illegal crops, while facing anti-personnel mines and other explosive devices. In October 2015, Colombia suspended eradication through aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate near the Ecuadorian border and focused instead on uprooting coca bushes in the area.
“One of the methods used most by groups devoted to narcotrafficking is to contaminate roadways and illegal crops with anti-personnel mines to slow down the [Colombian] Army’s manual eradication work,” Brig. Gen. Tafur explained. “The number of mines varies by crop, but, in general, three to 10 mines are found in each field.”
In 2017, FTP neutralized 397 mines in Alto Mira and Frontera, the areas most affected by coca crops in the department of Nariño. The jungle region, one of the least developed parts of the country, is the largest coca-producing area in Colombia.
According to the 2017 report of the Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI, in Spanish) of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, coca crops in Nariño increased by 43 percent from 2015 to 2016, with 43,000 hectares planted. The report noted that 39 percent of the coca in Colombia is found in the Pacific coastal region, in the departments of Cauca, Chocó, and Valle del Cauca.
“Forced manual eradication consists of getting to the crops and pulling out plants by their roots to die under the sun,” Brig. Gen. Tafur said. “While it may appear simple, this is difficult work that involves extreme danger, with the constant risk of coming across anti-personnel mines recently planted to harm our troops or even the civilian population in that area.”
Colombia is the second most heavily mined country in the world, after Afghanistan. According to 2017 figures from Descontamina Colombia, a program under the Administrative Department of the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia, detonations from such devices left 2,276 dead since 2001. Additionally, more than 11,500 cases of people who suffered injuries from unexploded ordinance or anti-personnel mines were recorded.
The demining work in Colombia is two pronged: neutralize mines the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia planted over five decades of conflict, and clear areas of recently installed mines around coca crops. “Nowadays, terrorist groups use explosive devices to prevent authorities from accessing their sources of financing, such as illegal crop areas, illegal siphons installed on oil pipelines, and illegal mining areas,” said to Diálogo Colonel Jorge Armando Troncoso, assistant director of the National Center for Countering IEDs and Mines (CENAM, in Spanish) of the Colombian National Army.
In 2017, CENAM neutralized close to 7,500 explosive devices throughout the country. Of those, 3,673 were anti-personnel mines.
Some of the recently planted mines are homemade. Those too can cause great harm—even death. “They’re very simple devices made from any kind of container. They add the explosive, which is made from ammonium nitrate […] mixed with petroleum derivatives. Finally, they install an activation mechanism that can be triggered through strain relief with a taut line or pressure with a syringe,” Col. Troncoso explained. “For the largest explosive devices, there’s an activation method that uses radio frequency.”
Although there is significant progress in demining, outlaw groups continue to plant such devices, sometimes coercing the local population. “One method these subversives have been using for some time in Nariño is to deliver anti-personnel mines to farmers who tend to the crops for them to plant them in the areas where Army troops pass through,” Col. Troncoso said.
In 2018, the Colombian Army will keep focusing on uprooting coca bushes—an eradication method that keeps the replanting rate to less than 10 percent. The Army will also direct its efforts on the location and neutralization of mines and improvised explosive devices.
“In 2018, we will continue to focus on areas where forced manual eradication entails the risk of coming across explosives,” Col. Troncoso concluded. “In Colombia, the real challenge is to keep up with criminals who devise new methods to develop harder-to-detect mines every day.”