One afternoon in December 2002, Cláudia Celeny Gallego, then 10-years-old, decided to go to town with her parents. On the way, her father, Ramón Ocampo, stepped on an anti-personnel land mine, the so-called "paw-breaker." He had to be dragged, unconscious, to the hospital. He died the following day, on Christmas Eve, leaving behind a family that nowadays lives on charity in a tiny house in the municipality of Cocorná.
Stories like this one are becoming more and more common in Colombia. Based on the annual report from Landmine Monitor, an international organization established in 1999, Colombia is third in the list of countries with the greatest number of anti-personnel land mine victims, following Cambodia and Afghanistan. Land mines claim two or three victims every day in Columbia, which is accountable for more than 13 percent of the land mine related accidents in the world.
Last August, Aurélio Clavino Gomez, 11, stepped on a land mine while trying to catch something to add to his family's lunch. The family had been banned from their small farm by guerillas. "His father and the dog were walking by the trail ahead of him, but the land mine only exploded when the boy stepped on it," said his mother, Flor Elba Gómez. The father took the boy in his arms and ran to the nearby highway for help, where he got a lift to Medellín, the distant capital of the state of Antioquia. His father's efforts were not enough to save Aurélio's foot, which was amputated. He is still awaiting a prosthesis promised by the state government.
"The land mines are destroying whole families," said Nancy Marín, who is the facilitator of the land mine accident prevention program for the Peace and Democracy Corporation, in the municipality of Cocorná. "All you've got to do is to look at the Ramirez family."
Maria Consuelo Ramirez lost her husband and one of her children to a land mine while they were collecting sand from a riverbank. Another son is paralyzed from the same accident. In a separate incident, another son lost his foot.
"Over 80 percent of the individuals counted since 1990 suffered their accidents in the last five years," said José Antonio Delgado, who is the cooperation coordinator of the Red Cross in the country.
According to María Clara Ucrós, communication director for the Colombian Campaign Against Landmines (C.C.C.M. — Campaña Colombiana Contra las Minas), "Colombia is the only country in the Americas in which the armed groups are still planting land mines almost everyday,"
From Jan. 1 to Nov. 1, 2005, Columbia's Landmine Observatory recorded 799 new incidents, in 31 of Columbia's 32 states.
Unlike some countries, where 99 percent of the victims are civilians, in Colombia, where the on-going conflict between the government and guerilla groups continues, land mines have claimed the greatest number of victims among soldiers. At the entrance to the Sanity Battalion building, in Bogotá, a statue of a soldier with a metal detector in his hands stands as a symbol of the danger. "In this hospital alone, over 1,200 wounded individuals, many of them hit by land mines, are being treated," said the chaplain, José Moreno.
A soldier who was mutilated by a land mine, with his daughter in Bogotá. Photo courtesy of Vinicius Souza.
"The military, at least, can count on a quicker rescue action and a wider net of social protection by the government," said Fidel Martinez, legal counselor for the Democracy Development Foundation (Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Democracia - Fundemos). "There is no specific legislation for civilian survivors of land mine accidents, and the only existing general law, which offers whatever little amount of help to the conflict's victims, demands an enormous bureaucracy." According to Martinez, the state has failed to provide even this minimal assistance, and will continue to fail to do so, because it hasn't taken steps to disclose the law to more citizens.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and Unicef are the only international entities sponsoring programs to lessen the impact of land mines on the Colombian population. "We have no knowledge of which are the most affected areas," Juan said Pedro Schaerer, head of the I.C.R.C. delegation. "In addition to that, when the government does finally decide to perform a general land mine clearance, the country's dimensions and geographical profile, with mountain ranges and forests, will make the work extremely difficult."
Only the FARCs Admit to Using the Explosives
Despite the unquestionable increase in the number of victims in Colombia, only the FARCs (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) admit openly to the use of land mines. According to a recent statement, the leftist guerilla group is too poor to purchase more sophisticated weapons.
The ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army), the second largest guerilla group, says that it complies with the principles of humanitarian international rights and does not use land mines in an indiscriminate way. The ELN however, is one of the organizations planting the greatest number of land mines in the country.
Right-wing paramilitary groups simply do not make pronouncements on the matter.
The government, having signed the Ottawa Treaty, cannot use, store or transport such artifacts. It also has to undertake the responsibility of clearing the minefields and providing victims with assistance. But the military base which protects the communication towers on Munchique Hill, in the state of Cauca, still has "Mine Field" signs. "We keep the signboards just to be on the safe side, in case some mines still remain under the ground," said Lt. José Quintero.
Latin America Has 10 Other Countries With Mine Fields
Despite the fact that Colombia is the only country with an ongoing civil war in Latin America, 10 other Latin American countries still record land mine incidents on regular basis.
Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala still suffer the consequences of its twentieth-century wars. There is no clear information on Cuba, which has not signed the Ottawa Treaty and keeps minefields at least around the American base of Guantánamo.
In South America, there are land mines at the boundaries of Chile with Argentina and Bolivia, and between Peru and Ecuador. Venezuela recorded a land mine incident in 2004, and still hasn't fulfilled its promise to clear the six minefields protecting its naval facilities.
In North America, Canada is one of the major backers of anti-land mine actions, having acted as the host for the international meeting that resulted the treaty.
The United States refuses to sign the treaty because it cannot let go of a weapon it might need in the future. However, 74 land mine related casualties were recorded by the United States between 2001 and 2003 in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is one reason why the United States is the major individual donor in the fight against land mines. But of the $96.5 million donated by the United States to anti-mine programs in 31 countries in 2004, $35.8 million was spent in Iraq alone.
40 Countries Ignore the Anti-Mine Agreement
The Ottawa Treaty, the agreement that prohibits the production, trade, transfer, stockpiling and utilization of anti-personnel land mines, was established in 1997. Since then, 147 countries have adhered to the treaty. Ethiopia, Bhutan, Latvia and Vanuatu Signed the treaty in 2005 but 40 other countries have yet to sign, among them the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.
The treaty underwent its last review in December. At this meeting, Landmine Monitor described the current situation in each of the 104 countries affected by land mines or otherwise involved in the matter. Despite a decrease in the number of countries that recorded accidents with land mines between 2004 and 2005, the number of survivors who need social, medical and psychological assistance — often for the rest of their lives — has increased.
Of the three countries that topped the list — Cambodia, Afghanistan and Colombia — only Afghanistan has had a decrease in the number of recorded incidents.