Colombia is the nation second most affected by landmines, just after Afghanistan. Mines are a low-cost, high-impact weapon that have become vital for the offensive waged by the increasingly debilitated Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The usage of mines to delay the military’s advance has become a favored tactic of the FARC as their capacity to carry out military offensives has decreased. On March 30, the 10th Front bombed an electrical tower in Arauca, temporarily cutting out electricity in the entire department. Six days later technicians still couldn’t get close enough to fix the problem: the FARC had encircled the area with mines, some buried a meter and a half deep in the earth.
The FARC uses a wide variety of mines and explosives: some activated by cell phone, some made of pentolite or anfo, and gas cylinder bombs (like the one that killed an estimated 119 civilians in a Chocho church in 2002, after the guerrillas misfired the missile).
Also deadly are the cruder anti-personnel mines made of primitive materials like empty glass jars, bottles and cans, which do not contain metal and are thus practically undetectable. Untriggered, these can last for up to 30 years.
The FARC typically plant mines in order to delay the advance of the military, usually after infrastructure attacks like the one in Arauca, or when coca eradication teams are at work in rural areas. Mines are used to protect the guerrilla’s coca cultivations and their movement corridors, often with lethal results. According to the army, last year 101 soldiers were killed and 417 were injured due to anti-personnel mines. This would make up almost a quarter of the casualties suffered by the security forces last year, when over 450 army and police personnel were killed by the FARC, and over 2,000 were wounded.
InSight has developed a map showing the top 10 departments and the top 10 municipalities most affected by anti-personnel mines in 2011, based on information from Colombia’s United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA – SIDIH).
The UN office counts 94 mine incidents so far this year in the ten most affected departments, and another 16 victims in other departments, for a total of 110. The FARC’s strongholds in Colombia’s heartland – Tolima, Antioquia and Cauca – are all on the list, but what is also significant is the number of mine incidents registered in the border states. Aside from Cauca, Arauca and Nariño are probably seeing some of the fiercest fighting today between the security forces and the guerrillas. Putumayo is a little more quiet, but is still the epicenter of the Southern Bloc’s drug trade.
This is a reminder of how much the FARC have been pushed to the fringes of the country. In the past decade, mine incidents have by far been most prevalent in Antioquia (1,582 injuries and deaths registered since 2000). This is Colombia’s coffee heartland and where the FARC once battled fiercely with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). Now, as the FARC gets pushed out of Colombia’s center and towards border states like Arauca, Nariño and Putumayo, the weakened guerrillas will probably continue to use anti-personnel mines as a way to defend their ground and strike out against the security forces.
Victims of anti-personnel mines peaked the past decade in 2005 and 2006, when the UN office registered 1,103 incidents each year. 2010 only saw 378 incidents, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the FARC are making fewer mines, perhaps just planting them more strategically. This includes areas undergoing coca eradication, or rural corners of the country where the government is looking to bring in a new infrastructure project or a multinational investor, like northern Antioquia or parts of Meta, two departments experiencing a mining and oil boom, respectively. Bringing in development means bringing in the army and police, whom the FARC then attempt to harass with roadside bombs.
The FARC’s usage of mines has also taken a serious toll on the civilian population. The most recent victim, Jorge Luis Simanca Durango, age 27, died after stepping on a mine in Ituango, Antioquia. A boy, age 17, was also injured. They were the fifth and sixth mine victims registered so far this year in the municipality.
View InSight – Landmines in Colombia in a larger map