U.S. Department of State Humanitarian Mine-action Support in Colombia

by Edmund Trimakas [ PM/WRA ]

Years of conflict between the Colombian government and the militant group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia has left the country littered with landmines and millions of internally displaced persons. The Colombian government is trying to address this situation. The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State is working with Colombian organizations and nongovernmenal organizations to clean up contaminated areas and resettle Colombia’s IDPs.


Surrounding Colombian countryside adjacent to San Francisco, Antioquia department, ERT worksite.
All photos courtesy of the author

The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State initiated a humanitarian mine-action program in Colombia in September 2005. Since that time, PM/WRA has successfully assisted Colombia’s HMA program by providing the equipment, training and maintenance for two emergency response teams—in partnership with the Organization of American States Acción Integral contra las Minas Antipersonal program—for operational humanitarian clearance. In January 2009, the government of Colombia launched a third ERT. The United States expects to provide the maintenance support for this newest team.

PM/WRA has also partnered with Colombian nongovernmental organizations including the Centro Integral de la Rehabilación de Colombia, or CIREC, to target assistance to rural civilian victims through medical brigades and support centers. PM/WRA’s association with CIREC through its “Seeds of Hope” rural outreach program has helped hundreds of victims receive prostheses, wheelchairs and other assistive devices. 

Additionally, PM/WRA recently sponsored a mine-risk education program in the Antioquia department1 with the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines.The first phase of the MRE program targeted children. The second phase of the grant funding will be released shortly; it will target the same communities, but its target audience for MRE will be adults. Antioquia has the highest casualties from landmines among all Colombian departments.

More must be done, however, by international donors, to prevent injuries and help survivors in Colombia. The country stands at a significant political and social turning point in its history; in recent years has been ranked No. 1 globally for new landmine casualties and No. 2 for internally displaced persons, 2,3,4,5 stemming from the terrorist actions of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucisonarias de Colombia. Various reports indicate there are between three and four million displaced individuals within Colombia’s borders. Landmine relief is just one small piece of international support needed to combat terrorism in Colombia.

Insurgency Diminishing

Plan Colombia,6 which targets drug trafficking, has left a firm imprint on counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia; the militant group FARC is largely considered to be on the run. The remnants of the 40-year-old insurgent stronghold are currently subsisting through loosely segregated cells without an existing political agenda. FARC survives by using an economic lifeline of drug and hostage enterprises with a limited life span.7

Since President Álvaro Uribe took office, his new government is making strong and steady progress in the battle against terrorism. For instance:

  1. Armed FARC forces have been cut in half.
  2. Attrition of FARC forces now surpasses losses attributed to military action.
  3. International condemnation from former FARC allies is rising.
  4. The recent removal (voluntary and involuntarily) of key FARC leaders indicates a dissolution of centralized control, evident by the successful rescue of American hostages in July 2008.

All these factors increasingly point to the conclusion that the policy begun at the turn of the millennium of squeezing the overall base and stronghold of terrorist operations is paying dividends.

Recently there have been large-scale public demonstrations against FARC including rallies and street demonstrations against FARC policies. FARC is no longer viewed as a political entity trying to liberate Colombia; it is instead seen as a criminal outfit geared to drugs, kidnapping and terrorism with no ideological backbone. Political consensus among Colombians for a solution to the terrorist issue continues to intensify, pointing to a mandate for a final resolution of the insurgency situation and a more lasting peace throughout Colombia.


A landmine is marked for clearance.
All photos courtesy of the author

Colombia’s Future

The Colombian military and the Programa Presidencial de Acción Integral contra las Minas Antipersonal, or PPAICMA (Presidential Program for Mine Action), have developed a detailed program to move mine assistance into the most highly affected regions in Colombia. By 2011, Colombia’s HMA planners intend to train and equip 12 mobile ERT in fixed locations within the 12 most-affected departments of Colombia; they also plan to have two teams on standby. Currently, six humanitarian clearance teams exist—two each are sponsored by Canada, Colombia and the U.S. The two Canadian teams are relegated to the fixed, static cleanup8 of 34 military bases. By the end of 2011, these two fixed-site teams will have completed military site cleanup and will be positioned to team with the other ERTs to focus on the more urgent humanitarian need for clearance at remote civilian sites.

Demining Challenges

The four U.S.- and Canadian-supported ERTs have encountered significant difficulties in achieving their desired goal of rapidly reintegrating former IDPs. ERT deployment prioritization has been difficult due to conflicting pressure points, including highly visible and volatile media events, a strong military proclivity to develop sites close to secure bases with limited humanitarian appeal, a lack of strong community support, changing economic and IDP patterns and a lack of full and open commitment to developing accountable schedules for ERT deployment.

There are several factors that need to be overcome to make operational clearance in Colombia successful. These include:

At present, Colombian planners have not determined a satisfactory intermediary course between full-scale cleanup and community integration and timely deployment to the many communities requiring assistance. The two U.S.-sponsored projects in Bajo Grande, Bolivar and San Francisco, Antioquia, required more than twice the initially planned turn-around time of four months to complete community clearance and turnover.

Authorities are under strong external constraints to continue to operate under a mandate for a completely mine-free10 pattern, largely avoiding the complexities and worries associated with employing international standards for sampling and area reduction. With a potential budget shortfall for planned ERT projects, it is becoming increasingly clear that something must give, and additional donors are needed or many communities will be left in the dark.

In addition to funding shortfalls, incomplete community infrastructure and economic turmoil prevent a fully successful turnover of these projects to townspeople, who were forced to seek a semi-nomadic existence seven or eight years ago by FARC forces. In Bajo Grande, lack of a definable water source, fully accessible roads, available health and school facilities as well as a redefined economic agricultural pattern are all obstacles for successful community reintegration that were addressed by PPAICMA and Bajo Grande community leaders.

In San Francisco, Antioquia, the integration has been smoother, largely because the surrounding area was not abandoned as it was in Bajo Grande. Until recently, security issues have deterred the townspeople from returning to San Francisco. This issue was resolved recently, allowing full economic and social integration to occur.

Additionally, economic conditions and expectations have changed over the last eight years since the displaced people have returned. One example is the expectation of returning IDPs to continue to farm tobacco, which was previously a successful cash crop. Upon returning, they found that the market has largely disappeared. Thus, it is paramount that there be a renewed focus on community planning for future development and successful integration of IDPs.

Progress

There have been some positive developments, however. One look at the former site of Bajo Grande, along the Sucre and Bolivar borders, clearly indicates the extent of successful ERT operations. When site operations began in November 2007, approximately 30 former homes existed as mere shells, a result of being abandoned and exposed to jungle overgrowth for seven years. Completion of mine and improvised explosive device cleanup in Bajo Grande took place in November 2008, and the town is steadily being repopulated by former townspeople. Unfortunately, a majority of the displaced families were unable to return to their homes because infrastructure repair and services were not reinstituted.

Future

James Madison University’s Mine Action Information Center and PM/WRA presented a demining planning conference in June 2009 in Bogotá, Colombia, to address a number of issues with the Colombian players, including civilians, PPAICMA, Ministry of Defense, OAS, the Colombian military and other demining representatives. Participants developed a three-point Plan of Action on how to best integrave keystakeholders, comparents and best practices into Colombia mine action. In the fall, the spotlight will again be on Colombia when the Second Review Conference of the Ottawa Convention takes place in Cartagena.

Biography

Edmund Trimakas has worked for the last 10 years as Latin American Humanitarian Mine-action Program Manager in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State. Before this position, he was a Case Officer in foreign military sales and a Program Analyst at Armstrong Laboratories at Wright Patterson AFB for 13 years. Trimakas has a Master of Business Administration in finance and health administration and currently resides in northern Virginia with his wife and two children.

Endnotes

  1. Departments are subdivided portions of a country, much like a state, province, or county, set up by the country's government. They are sometimes overseen by semiautonomous governing bodies.
  2. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor Report 2005: Toward a Mine-Free World, (New York: Human Rights Watch, October 2005.) http://www.icbl.org/lm/2005/colombia.html. Accessed 13 March 2009.
  3. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor Report 2006: Toward a Mine-Free World, (New York: Human Rights Watch, October 2006.) http://tinyurl.com/ag37gu. Accessed 13 March 2009.
  4. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor Report 2008: Toward a Mine-Free World, (New York: Human Rights Watch, October 2007.) http://www.icbl.org/lm/2007/colombia.html. Accessed 16 April 2009.
  5. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor Report 2008: Toward a Mine-Free World, (New York: Human Rights Watch, October 2008.) http://www.icbl.org/lm/2008/countries/colombia.php. Accessed 16 April 2009.
  6. Plan Colombia is the name of the American legislation that was passed to eliminate cocaine and the drug trade in Colombia by supporting the Colombian government’s war on drugs.
  7. U.S. Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs’ Electronic Information and Publications Office. “Background Note: Colombia.” November 2008. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35754.htm. Accessed 16 April 2009.
  8. The fixed, static cleanup is performed by two Canadian demining teams who are cleaning up demining sites, rather than civilian site cleanup performed by the American teams. Once demining sites have been completely cleaned, these two teams will join the American teams at civilian sites.
  9. IDPs who leave are often seen by the FARC as government sympathizers or in days past, as collaborators with paramilitaries. If threatened villagers remained, they faced continual harassment from the FARC including mines and improvised explosive devices.  
  10. Editor’'s Note: Some countries and mine-action organizations are urging the use of the term “mine free,” while others are espousing the term “mine safe” or “impact free.” "Mine free” connotes a condition where all landmines have been cleared, whereas the terms “mine safe” and “impact free” refer to the condition in which landmines no longer pose a credible threat to a community or country.

Contact Information

Edmund Trimakas
Program Manager
Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
U.S. Department of State
Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
SA-3, Suite 6100
2121 Virginia Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20522 / USA
Tel: +1 202 663 0014
Fax: +1 202 663 0090
E-mail: trimakased@state.gov
Web site: http://www.state.gov