Issue 5.2 | August 2001 | Information in this issue may be out of date.
Click here to link to the most recent issue.

This Hard Land: A Renewal of Humanitarian Mine Action in El Salvador

The International Demining Group (IDG) firmly believes that humanitarian landmine clearance should be naturally positioned in the sphere of development. It is a key objective of IDG to demonstrate this with CORDES, its partner organization in El Salvador.

by Graeme R. Goldsworthy, Director, International Demining Group, and Dr. Frank Faulkner, University of Derby

Article Index

Introduction (top | index)

The states that comprise Central America have been described, in view of the region’s travails and geographical proximity to the United States, as "so near to America, yet so far from God."1 The rationale for this apparently controversial statement finds itself in the upheavals of the 1980s with the alleged (or real) spectra of encroaching communism and U.S. determination to render the Western Hemisphere as hermetically secure as possible.

Police fire tear gas to disperse civilian protestors in Izalco, El Salvador, who protested for payment for helping the government during the civil war. c/o AP

The major conflicts that beset the area roughly coincide with the onset of the Second Cold War in late 1979–1980. Tension between the two superpowers had reached an impasse, or merely outlived its usefulness, and the Soviet Union had "invited" itself into Afghanistan in support of an ailing communist leadership. The renewal of Cold War antagonisms between the East and West was also exacerbated by the deployment of new generations of nuclear weapons, notably in the European theatre and the arrival on the world political stage of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, two ideological soul mates armed with a new "get tough" policy towards what they saw as a monolithic USSR. The rhetoric emanating from London and Washington was couched in the language of Realpolitik, underpinned by the so-called "timeless wisdom" of classical realism.

Over and above the struggles between the erstwhile First and Second Worlds,2 the Neo-Marxian "peripheral" states of the Third World almost invariably absorbed the fallout from this struggle, in which the "Long Peace" enjoyed by the developed world was anything but for others. As commentary on post-1945 politics informs us, the major theatres of conflict have tended to be Africa, the Middle East, and East and South Asia.  Central America, on the other hand, has usually languished in some strategic backwater.


The civil war ended in El Salvador on the 16th of January in 1992 with the signing of the peace agreement of Chapultepec. Since the peace agreement, democratic and civil procedures have grown in strength. However, the legacy of warfare remains, and the refusal of many FMLN elements to hand in weapons after the peace accords has resulted in a situation where up to 400,000 illegal weapons are thought to be in the hands of bandits or in hidden caches. Many such caches contain landmines and explosive devices that can be modified for use as mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Mines neutralized and recovered in El Salvador. c/o University of Derby

With regard to the use of anti-personnel landmines (APMs), the principal areas of operation have mostly reflected the severity of the in situ situation in terms of casualty rates, morbidity, infastructural implosion, mine numbers and so on. Moreover, some areas like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mozambique and Angola have received greater media exposure partly because they were "fashionable" for a time before attention spans expired and the global media circus moved on. The same cannot be said for Central America; if one were to ask members of the public which parts of the world have a serious landmine problem, those who expressed a knowledgeable opinion would not mention the Americas, again due to a lack of exposure by knowledge-dissemination mechanisms. Certainly, countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras would not spring readily to mind. In fact, they have experienced significant problems with APMs, with concomitant impact on agriculture, healthcare institutions, and present and future development.

Furthermore, efforts to address these and related dilemmas have suffered due to periodic natural disasters, including Hurricane Mitch and the two recent devastating earthquakes that leveled large parts of El Salvador. Accordingly, what follows will concentrate on the work of the International Demining Group (IDG), a Dutch-registered, UK-based mine clearance organization, and its activities in El Salvador, together with background information on the group’s relations and objectives in El Salvador.

IDG understands the relationship between post-conflict issues and development, especially in Central America. For instance, Honduras is among the poorest countries in the world, Nicaragua is fourth poorest in the Western Hemisphere, and all have been theatres of the Cold War fought by proxy. There is a definitive link between land issues/mine contamination and the trap of poverty.

El Salvador – A Brief History (top | index)

El Salvador has a long history of strife. Over the centuries, a small elite (and armed forces) possessed all political and economic powers. In more recent times, the development of the coffee industry in the late 19th century saw coffee plantation owners gain domination of government and economy, and land was progressively seized from the rural population for coffee growing.

In 1980 the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero incited a coalition of left-wing guerrilla organizations—the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)—to declare war against the government. The ensuing conflict saw more than 75,000 people killed and more than 300,000 children and adolescents left disabled.3 Both the FMLN and government forces widely used landmines as a means of frontline anti-personnel and anti-tank/vehicle warfare.

Previous Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) in El Salvador (top | index)

HMA in El Salvador, mounted following the Chapultepec accords, was indeed a sustained effort that resulted in a general stabilization of the mine problem. However, although the effort was undertaken with the best equipment and information available then, it is clear that there is simply not enough accurate information regarding the number and configuration of mine fields forthcoming. There are simple reasons for this. Firstly, not everyone trusted the durability of the peace process, and many have avoided unwanted exposure that could result from passing on information. Secondly, many of those with relevant information pertaining to certain areas had died or left the country. The outstanding UXO infestation in rural areas remains a significant issue in El Salvador.

The International Demining Group (Grupo Internacional Des Desminado) (top | index)

IDG is specifically engaged in the social and economic development problems of communities in mine-affected countries and is a humanitarian civilian-based demining, training and technical service organization. Our primary aim is to work closely with affected rural communities and national development NGOs. This aim serves to empower such NGOs and the communities they support to participate directly in awareness building, demining and land rehabilitation. IDG regards the safety and security of women and children as an important aspect leading to social and economic stability within the area of clearance. The IDG program focuses on family security with particular emphasis on the agricultural sector. This is especially important in Central America, where family values and family ties are the main social blocks of all the communities.

IDG is small, flexible and mobile. It is very much aware of academic understanding, yet it is also an active and operational organization. By using its academic knowledge and by obtaining a better understanding of related social issues, IDG can make informed decisions on the ground.

Our objective is to make the methodology developed in El Salvador useful in the future to other heavily-mined countries in Latin America and outside the region. Creating close ties with affected communities enables IDG and its partners (both national and international) to more effectively place development funding into areas of greatest need and greater sustainability.

IDG is funded through partnership arrangements with international humanitarian NGOs anxious to ensure that the process of humanitarian non-military demining is accurately targeted and provides maximum benefit to the local community development process. Our goal is to employ, train and deploy members of affected communities. This process is undertaken in close cooperation with local community NGOs and the communities themselves. This method provides valued and skilled employment opportunities in the community and allows IDG to bond strongly at a community level. This facilitates access to existing informal information-gathering networks that are not routinely available to military and police organizations in the post-conflict stage of an intra-state conflict.

IDG recognizes that mine/UXO clearance programs are paramount to peace and confidence building in post-conflict society and the organization is engaged in the linkage of mine/UXO clearance and the promotion and implementation of weapons amnesty projects, designed for the removal of small arms from civil society in the post-conflict phase. As stated earlier, El Salvador may have up to 400,000 illegally-held or unregistered weapons, many of which are cached with grenades, mines and mortar rounds.

IDG’s major partnership organization in El Salvador is the Foundation for the Cooperation and the Communal Development of El Salvador (CORDES).4 IDG and CORDES will work together with the aim of clearing landmines/UXO in CORDES project areas and sharing landmine/UXO information. CORDES personnel will be trained and capacitated to operate demining projects and to manage such projects. IDG also has an agreement with the Department of Human Rights (PPDH), the government department responsible for compliance with the Ottawa Convention and through this agreement, IDG holds lead agency status for HMA in the country. Through the strength of such arrangements, IDG can access information networks at all levels, thus ensuring neutrality in program assessment and implementation.

Activities to Date (top | index)

In 1998–2000, IDG performed a number of pre-program assessments in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for various aid and development agencies, which revealed the need for a renewed demining effort in El Salvador. IDG found in the other named countries that demining programs were in the initial phase of management, and that any IDG role in these countries would exist in the future when conditions of stability similar to those found in El Salvador allowed HMA to work effectively in the area of community development.

The first IDG Assessment Mission for El Salvador began in late 1998 and was conducted individually by two members of the IDG staff. The purpose of the assessment was to analyze the need for a thorough and renewed demining and technical assistance program.

Subsequent work in the country included gathering information regarding landmine/UXO-contaminated areas as well as information on areas requiring further technical assistance. This information was gathered with the assistance of ex-guerrillas, members of the El Salvadorian Army, NGOs, National Civil Police (PNC), the Disabled War Veterans Fund, the Department for Humanitarian Rights and localized community members, with whom localized partnerships/agreements of cooperation were subsequently formed.

To date, the land surface area under consideration for level one survey and/or demining operations covers approximately 150 sq km. The departments that this area covers so far are Chalatenango, Cabanas, Cuscatlan and Usulutan. With limited funding, IDG technical staff has recorded 53 previously "unknown or unrecorded" mined locations, which were verified by breaching into suspected areas and detecting, neutralizing and recovering mines.

During these investigations, anti-personnel mines, booby traps, hand grenades, mortar rounds and an ATG rocket were cleared. All of these items were in operational or "live" condition. The detonators on some were degraded, which made the devices unstable. Within every location investigated, mines and items of UXO were recovered. An advance-to-contact breaching method was used during these investigative missions. Some areas were too large or overgrown for a verification team to investigate in detail with the resources available at that time. IDG will relocate to these areas as part of the planned level one survey.

All the items cleared were handed to the Arms and Explosive Division of the PNC, and a receipt was given to IDG upon presentation. An official of the Department of Human Rights (PPDH) and a journalist from the national daily El Diario del Hoy were present at the handover.

Natural Disasters and Severe Weather Incidents (top | index)

Hurricane Mitch

Mitch lashed the northern part of El Salvador in late 1998, killing 239 people, affecting a further 100,000 people and rendering 45,000 homeless. There were 300 reported mudslides, 17 bridges damaged and 830 schools destroyed. This disaster compounded the situation of a country where 30 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. The dispersal and dislodgment of landmines and UXO occurred, and the IDG assessment staff located a mortar bomb and an air-to-ground rocket from the flood course of the Lempa River near the coast.5 The salient of northern Morazon from Perquin was dislodged, which was unfortunate because the area of the Perquin hills had been declared landmine-free after a commercial demining operation in 1994.

Problems of soil and water displacement exacerbate the problem of landmines even further. Widespread urban housing programs and deforestation have resulted in the progressive erosion of large areas of topsoil. Extremely heavy rainfall contributes to widespread flooding and landslides in rural lowland areas. Under such conditions, landmines/UXO can be shifted considerably and emerge at surface level, further increasing the danger posed to local inhabitants. Such effects also necessitate a reevaluation of minefield intelligence. Tragically, many of the effects of flooding one year after Mitch, generally regarded as worse than the post-Mitch flooding, went unreported by the international media.

January and February 2001 Earthquakes

The people of Santa Tecla were rudely awakened in the early hours of January 13th this year when the first of two earthquakes caused a deforested hillside to come crashing down on a main residential district. The image of the gouged hill provided a focal reporting point for the world’s media that flocked to the area. It seemed El Salvador was back on the international media trail once more. However, the impact of the earthquake in rural parts of the country was not as extensively reported. Rural housing has been particularly affected along with major and minor roads, public amenity buildings (schools and health clinics), churches and utility supply networks.6 Many thousands are homeless, and agricultural activity has been severely interrupted. The earthquake struck at the beginning of the coffee harvest. Landslides and falls also indicate the need to revisit mine fields targeted for clearance under the pilot IDG-CORDES project to check for dislodgment.

As the wet season comes upon those left homeless and in temporary accommodations, the effects of the quake will be compounded with the problems of the seasonal occurrence of flooding. Rebuilding plans remain inadequate, confused and under-funded. Relocation of the homeless to temporary housing sites must now consider potential UXO.

IDG’s presence in the country with a fully working mine-clearance program including paramedics, ambulance standard vehicles, search and rescue teams, radio communications and well-trained, disciplined teams of operators inherent in mine clearance capacity can effectively assist emergency relief tasks. Mine-clearance teams and their in-country operational support structure have significant value in emergency situations.7 Disaster-response planners would benefit from including such capacity in the future.

Foundation CORDES (top | index)

Founded as a result of rural communities organizing in Chaletenango Department El Salvador, CORDES is a strong rural-development NGO with numerous international cooperating and donor partners. With a well-structured management capacity, it also acts as an umbrella organization for a number of microeconomic development and environmental NGOs throughout the country. CORDES has the capacity to absorb mine clearance into its operational portfolio and provides the direct link between mine action and community development. In this sense, a southern NGO is being genuinely capacitated.

With CORDES actively setting the agenda for the prioritization of tasks, IDG will determine project sites in Suchitoto and Chaletenango. Identification of international staff and local personnel requirements structure the methodology of the community-based mine awareness program and formulate expansion of the program including all management, donor liaison and logistics arrangements.

UXO and clearance operations have resulted from informal and formal surveying. c/o University of Derby

Level One Survey (top | index)

IDG needs to conduct a full level one survey further mapping and marking proven or suspected mined areas combined with further development of existing informal and formal information-gathering networks already in place. This must be carried out in conjunction with an initial operational pilot project to be followed by implementing a full program of landmine and UXO clearance operations.

Training and Clearance Operations (top | index)

IDG feels that a demining project should be implemented in El Salvador as soon as possible. The most cost-effective way would be to deploy Mine Action Teams (MAT). These teams are trained in all aspects of the demining process, including mine awareness and survey. As a result, locally trained teams not only collect information but also inform the local community of immediate danger. They are also capable of disposing of UXO and mines by themselves.

In addition to implementing these programs, more specific activities that IDG pursue in the area include:

Natural disasters have complicated the clearing and disposal of mines. c/o University of Derby

• Strengthening: Strengthen partner organizations, particularly locally based NGOs, at the provincial and local level where CORDES will eventually carry out operations supporting its umbrella NGOs.

• Obtaining new applicable technology: Test promising mechanical mine-clearing equipment that is manageable, affordable and sustainable by the local partner.

• Disposing ordnance and arms caches: Promote effective weapons amnesty programs and reduce weapon-related crime, leading toward the rehabilitation of ex-combatants.

•Promoting transparency and learning: Document and share results with NGOs, donors, governments and other humanitarian organizations.

• Cooperating with and assisting others: Develop the national staff and the in-country capacity to implement similar projects that assist the development of a national mine clearance capacity.

• Conducting post-clearance activity: Evaluate and assess post-clearance activity in areas declared safe.

Mine Awareness (top | index)

A steady increase since 1997 of civilian casualties caused by items of unexploded war ordnance such as grenades and mortar bombs indicates the need to establish a dedicated public education program that generates mine awareness. Children in the primary school age bracket have grown up without exposure to the latent threats left by war. As a result, children bring items of UXO home out of curiosity; mortar bombs look similar to papaya. The lesson for those involved in mine awareness training is simply that it is a long-term process rather than a supplementary activity set beside the time scale of actual clearance operations

In support of the CORDES-IDG initiative, the PPDH and both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches will provide a comprehensive data-gathering network within rural communities in the country.

A Look Forward (top | index)

The pilot demining program should be successfully implemented by IDG in late 2001. After further expansion, the local partner will be fully trained and capacitated within two to three years. IDG will then hand the program and all of its equipment over to CORDES. At this stage, IDG’s role will become one purely of consultancy and supervision. IDG members will visit programs about twice a year to ensure that they are adhering to international standards of safety and to offer any necessary advice or training.

Conclusions (top | index)

IDG aims to bring landmine clearance into the sphere of development activity built within a capable and internationally-recognized community development NGO such as CORDES, with the structure and skills to absorb this capacity. El Salvador itself has demonstrated a working peace process that has created the best conditions for second-generation mine/UXO operations. In most countries where mine infestation is present, the style of operations being developed by IDG-CORDES in El Salvador would be unthinkable. Because of the peace process in the country, this style of project can be considered.

For wider activity to capacitate development of NGOs in demining to support development activity, El Salvador is the key to other affected countries in the region. For this reason, IDG has targeted its efforts for 2001 in this country. Expansion into neighboring affected states will be carried out from the stability of an operational project in El Salvador. IDG envisages the country as our regional base for the foreseeable future.

The nature and scale of the problems facing El Salvador should, by now, be self-evident: chronic and persistent UXO and landmine infestation, endemic infrastructural poverty, relatively weak demining capacities and so on. From IDG’s perspective, this entails a pragmatic and transparent approach, one expressly designed to meet the group’s ethos of removing expended ordnance from the ground so that local communities may begin to reclaim their lives, rebuild self-esteem, regain ownership of their communities with a renewed sense of belonging to their country and build a secure future for succeeding generations. Aside from this, the stability in El Salvador as a result of the working peace process, allowing such accurately-targeted and financially-effective mine/UXO operations to take place, can serve as an effective example to other countries beginning to recover from war. El Salvador has a real opportunity to show the way.

Equipped with funding provided by the resources of diverse organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, IDG is now in a position to make further progress towards its stated aims. We look forward to reporting the organization’s progress in future editions of the Journal of Mine Action.

References (top | index)

1See Faulkner and Pettiford, "Complexity and Simplicity: Landmines, Peace and Security in Central America." Third World Quarterly, 19, 1, 1998, pp 45—61.

2 These being the capitalist industrialized nations and former Warsaw Pact states, respectively.

3 CORDES sources estimate approximately 12,000 persons not on the EU-funded 1993 register of war disabled.

4 Fundacion para la Cooperacion y el Desarrollo Comunal de El Salvador.

5 Reported to PPDH for further action.

6 More than 50 percent of public schools (2,500) were damaged during the January and February earthquakes. International loans and credits for rebuilding were redirected to reconstruction of infrastructure. Source: Ministry for Education, Government of El Salvador.

7 The OAS teams responded in support of emergency operations in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Biographies (top | index)

Graeme R. Goldsworthy

Director of the International Demining Group, Mr. Goldsworthy is a former British Army Officer who has been involved with humanitarian demining in SE Asia, Africa and Central America since 1993. He is a graduate of the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Frank Faulkner

Dr. Frank Faulkner is a lecturer in Alternative Dispute Resolution and Political Science at the University of Derby, UK. Formerly a logistics technician serving with the British Army, Dr. Faulkner is the author of several academic articles on the subject of landmines and has written an article on child soldiers to be published in August this year. He is currently completing a monograph on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, due to be published in 2002. He is a graduate of the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.

Contact Information (top | index)

Graeme R. Goldsworthy, Director
International Demining Group
18 Almington Street
London, England N4 3Bp
Tel: + 44 207 263 6685
Dr. Frank Faulkner
University of Derby
Division of Law
Kedleston Road
Derby, England DE22 1Gb
Tel: +44 1332 6227366