U.S. Support for Civilian Demining Promotes Security in Colombia

Posted by Chris Murguia
February 28, 2014
The Town of Puerto Venus is Pictured, Where the HALO Trust, Supported by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Began Demining Activities in September 2013
A HALO Deminer in Training Undergoes Field Accreditation in the Nariño Municipality in Colombia
A HALO Survey Team Interviews Locals About the Presence of Minefields in the Nariño Municipality in Colombia
Candidates Attend a Deminer Training Course Run by HALO in the Nariño Municipality in Colombia

Deep in the Colombian countryside, tucked away amongst mountainous terrain, lays the town of Puerto Venus in the Nariño municipality.  Accessible primarily by foot and mule, Puerto Venus was once terrorized by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who controlled the town until a government offensive recaptured the area in 2005.  The FARC remained active in the countryside through 2010 and placed landmines on footpaths to restrict Colombian armed forces movement.  The FARC’s occupation in the area displaced thousands of residents and left behind a legacy of landmines that continues to pose serious safety risks to area residents that have returned.  But with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and its partners at the HALO Trust, communities across Colombia, like Nariño, are making progress against these hidden hazards, saving lives, and improving livelihoods by safely removing explosive remnants of war that keep people from cultivating land, attending school, and raising families in safety.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has pursued important reforms critical to achieving peace, such as a land restitution program.  But the presence of landmines has significantly hindered the land restitution process by limiting the movement of land restitution teams, who are responsible for investigating claims, and preventing sustainable land use once displaced families have returned.  The Colombian Land Restitution Unit estimates that 70 percent of land to be restituted is contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war.

The situation in Nariño is indicative of the larger landmine issue plaguing the country.  With 31 of its 32 departments contaminated by landmines, Colombia is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.  Decades of conflict between the Colombian armed forces and various illegal armed groups, such as the FARC, have left much of the country contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war and millions displaced from their homes.  Landmines were often laid in an irregular manner around schools, water sources, pathways, and other public spaces to intimidate locals and halt government forces.  Clearance operations are made even more dangerous by the common use of landmines using few metal components, making them more difficult to detect.  The extent of the contamination can be seen in the significant number of those killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance -- 10,607 since 1990, or more than one casualty per day for the last 23 years.

In September 2013, the HALO Trust began demining activities in Nariño after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.  Within days of deploying its civilian deminers, HALO found and destroyed its first landmine, a low-metal-content improvised explosive device, on the outskirts of Puerto Venus.  Since September, HALO has cleared and destroyed 15 more antipersonnel landmines and nine pieces of ordnance abandoned by those involved in the conflict.

Demining in Nariño poses a number of unique challenges for HALO.  Much of the area’s steep, mountainous terrain is only accessible by foot, making the journey to the minefields especially challenging for demining teams.  Once deminers reach the minefields, they must then cut through thick vegetation in an attempt to detect low-metal-content landmines.  Exacerbating the situation is a lack of minefield maps and records.  HALO relies on local residents to provide information as to where landmines may have been placed, but many residents who lived in the area during conflict periods have since left.  Despite these challenges, HALO is successfully moving forward with mine clearance operations and has directly assisted a number of beneficiaries who no longer have to walk potentially mine-contaminated pathways in their town.

HALO’s arrival also marks another significant development:  clearance of landmines and UXO by civilian demining teams instead of military forces, as is common elsewhere in Latin America.  When the countries of Central America became the first region of the world to be declared mine-impact free in 2010, for example, that 15-year effort to rid the region of landmines was conducted entirely by their militaries.  Similarly, the Government of Colombia initiated its demining program with the intent of utilizing only military deminers.  However, after examining the scope of landmine contamination in Colombia, the government decided to include civilian deminers in its program.

The incorporation of civilian deminers has taken many years and much effort, but these deminers are already proving to be a valuable asset to the program.  Although the military has been demining for years, the landmines are being laid down faster than they can be dug up.  Utilizing civilian deminers will increase the number of people actively removing landmines and will help Colombia to more quickly achieve its long-term peace and reconciliation goals.  The initiation of civilian demining marks the first step in achieving Colombia’s land restitution goals by creating safe and secure land to which people can return.  It is anticipated that the long process of certification and accreditation for HALO as the first civilian NGO conducting humanitarian demining in Colombia will serve to expedite the certification process for additional international NGOs who wish to conduct demining operations in the country.

With the commencement of civilian humanitarian demining in Colombia, organizations like HALO will now be able to rid the country of landmines – a life-threatening barrier to the restitution and reconciliation processes.  In the coming years, Colombia’s need for civilian demining is expected to increase significantly.  With U.S. support and in partnership with the Colombian Government, HALO plans to expand its demining capacity to over 500 deminers, and the Government of Colombia plans to deploy 49 civilian platoons.  This increase in civilian demining will bring Colombia, and the world, one step closer to becoming mine-impact free.

Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.2 billion to more than 90 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war.  For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.

About the Author: Chris Murguia is a Resource Management Fellow serving in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) 

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