FARC Landmines Hit Coca Eradication Efforts

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Questions over the effectiveness of coca crop eradication have an extra dimension in Colombia, where FARC rebels guard drug crops with landmines.

Antipersonnel landmines have traditionally been a key feature of the military tactics of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). There is evidence that, following a tactical shake-up in 2009 by leader Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” which saw the group revert to more traditional guerrilla methods of attack, this weapon is being increasingly deployed as a means to protect coca crops, as well as to attack and demoralize the armed forces.

Colombian security forces have discovered a number of stockpiles of explosive devices this year, including the seizure of 683 landmines belonging to the FARC in Antioquia, a north-central province which is currently the most mine-affected department in Colombia. In an interview earlier this year the head of the armed forces warned the country was “full” of landmines.

The increased deployment of landmines is having a marked impact on a particular sector of the civilian population — those employed under the government’s PAICMA program of manual eradication, which was established in 2006 and involves paying civilians to enter plantations of illicit crops and manually destroy them.

The program has been strongly criticized by NGOs such as CCCM (Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines) as it involves sending poorly trained civilians into areas with a high probability of landmine presence. According to the group, this violates the Colombian government’s commitment to Article 5.2 of the Ottawa Convention, in which it vowed to ensure the “effective exclusion” of civilians from areas known to contain landmines. According to CCCM, coca eradicators accounted for approximately one third of all civilian landmine victims so far this year.

The trend of using mines as a means of protecting coca plantations seems to be supported by official statistics published by PAICMA, which revealed that 129 victims of landmines during eradication processes were registered over 2008 and 2009, showing an almost five-fold increase of the 27 victims reported over 2006 and 2007. Furthermore the victim rates show no sign of decreasing, given that the number of landmine-related accidents registered last year was even greater than the figure reported for 2009.

Whilst government efforts to clamp down on coca farming have undoubtedly seen positive results (the area of illicit crops has fallen from 187,000 hectares (2002) to 67,000 (2011) according to a UN report), it is not clear how much of this is due to eradication programs and how much to other factors, such as increased security in coca-growing regions. Serious questions have been raised about the effectiveness of coca eradiction, both manuel and aerial, in persuading farmers to give up illegal crops. The civilian cost of manual eradication is undeniable, and seems likely to worsen if the FARC continue to increase their use of landmines in areas of coca production.

Peru’s new president, Ollanta Humala, recently suspended coca eradication efforts, saying that his government would evaluate the program’s success. Peru has suffered violent clashes between state forces and coca farmers over forced eradication programs, and UN statistics show that the area under coca cultivation has steadily increased in the last few years despite government efforts. It remains to be seen if the Colombian government, in light of increasing casualty rates amongst eradicators, might be forced to follow Peru’s lead and reconsider its coca eradication methods.

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