Issue 5.2 | August 2001 | Information in this issue may be out of date.
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Field Trip With MARMINCA

In the field with the deminers of MARMINCA, the editor of the JMA was able to witness first-hand how centralized demining practices are coordinated and carried out in Central America.

by Margaret S. Busé, Editor

The organized approach to mine action in Central America results in a uniform, controlled and highly organized method in demining. All aspects of demining operations are supervised by MARMINCA and carried out by the national armies/securities forces. Once a country is approved for demining operations through the OAS, supervisors are trained, dispatched and placed in a supervisory role over the local army at various fronts of operation in each country.

Colonel Luis F. Ramos, chief of all of MARMINCA’s operations in Central America, stresses that the strength of MARMINCA is that of a humanitarian mission under the IADB. The OAS supplies equipment, training, donor funding and coordination for all mine action operations. Donors contribute or pick up the cost for the demining of area specific modules that comprise a front of operation.

The Supervisors have a unique, consistent and significant role in MARMINCA, and they are the cornerstone of the efficiency of the centralized demining operations in Central America. They have a one-year tour of duty as supervisor. There are currently 30 Supervisors working in Central America, with 19 operating in Nicaragua. The supervisors all come from the following countries: 11 from Brazil, three from Guatemala, four from Honduras, three from Venezuela, four from El Salvador, three from Colombia, two from Bolivia. The Supervisors mission tasks are to:

  • Train new deminers with the help of U.S. Special Forces

  • Give technical assistance with equipment, explosives and destruction of mines

  • Guarantee that demining practices meet international standards

  • Update demining data received from different locations and prepare weekly and monthly reports that are sent to the IADB

  • Update the Tabla de Chequeo (checklist)

  • Certify demined areas

Captain Curti of Brazil referred to the Tabla de Chequeo as their "bible." The Tabla de Chequeo is an adaptation of the international standards for the entire demining mission in Central America. It is updated every year based on the supervisor’s experiences after nine months in the field. Based on the Tabla de Chequeo they develop specific Procedimiento Operativo Normal (PON) or standard operating procedures, for each aspect of the mission. MARMINCA has PONs for medical, destruction of mines, demining/emergency clearance operations and communications. It should be noted that they have already incorporated the new international standards into their operations.

Captain Siquiera of Brazil feels it is important to update the checklist because it is based on what everyone has seen in the camps and it has direct practical applications. The checklist is especially important for new deminers in the field. Every front of operation has different characteristics whether it is terrain or area to be cleared, i.e. mountains (or high tension towers) vs. bridges. All aspects are taken into consideration and are accounted for in the checklist.

To update the Tabla de Chequeo and to aid in maintaining accurate demining records, MARMINCA requires that the supervisors record their demining experiences daily—square meters of area demined, mines found, metal found, accidents, etc. These records are sent to MARMINCA daily where they are analyzed and given to operations to be analyzed again. They also give data to the PADCA-OAS office to be entered into IMSMA. Any discrepancies are discussed before the information goes into a final report for the IADB.

In Nicaragua, where I visited, there are five fronts of operation supervised by MARMINCA. Approximately 70,000 mines still litter the country and claim victims. The Fronts are:

The First Front, San Miguelito, is a small front with one international supervisor present and operates out of offices of the fourth front at Ocotal.

The Second Front, Abisinia, are four platoons working in Abisinia and the Pita del Carmen. It is supervised by the MARMINCA office at Juigalpa.

The Third Front, Juigalpa, is predominantly bridges and electrical towers. There are 60 towers, 36 of which have been certified as cleared. The mines in this area were laid by the Sandinistas to prevent economic sabotage by the Contras.

The Fourth Front, Ocotal, comprises the border area between Nicaragua and Honduras. This contains the largest mined area. There are problems with weather conditions, (fog and rain) and the terrain is rocky which makes maneuvering difficult.

The Fifth Front, Siuna, is in a remote area of Nicaragua that used to be a gold mining area. This north Atlantic region still has an insurgent group, Frente Unido Andres Castro (FUAC), that is prone to violence. While I was in Juigalpa there were two violent outbreaks in the fifth front in a 72-hour period. Because it is a sparsely populated area, it is easy for the guerillas to melt back into the population and into the mountains. As I was returning to the U.S., a joint military and police operation was expected to be deployed to quell the fighting. Captain Decio of Brazil is one of the supervisors of this area. They are currently working southwest of Mulukuku but they are slated to start work in the northern area next. He says they cannot start demining operations until the fighting has ceased.

Organization of a Front of Operation

The Third Front, Juigalpa, Nicaragua

There are 4 platoons (pelotones de zapadores), 4-dog teams, a medical team and a communications team comprising the operation of the third front. Captain Curti, the Brazilian coordinator of this front of operation, described their methods. The detectorista uses the metal detector and if he receives a response, the Jefe, chief, calls in the sondeadores who actually do the prodding. If it is a mine and not a piece of metal, he then calls in the explosivista who destroys it in situ. Some of the mines they are dealing with are 20 years old and are too fragile to move to destroy at another site. There are two zapadores and two sondeadores in a platoon, each platoon is made up of 25 squads.

Captain Curti also described the three levels of operation within a demining front.

Levels of Demining

Level I- An area is recognized as suspicious either based on a survey, mine field map or by reports from the local community. At this point, they do not enter the area, but they do all the background research needed for carrying out a survey. They review combat maps, look at incident reports, type of mines found or expected to be found, quantity, etc. Because they are working directly with the local community at this level gathering data, it is at this point that they carry out mine awareness activities.

Level II-When it is probable that they will find mines in an area, they conduct a technical study with either manual deminers or with dog teams. They survey and determine the parameters of the mine field. Curti stressed that because a suspicious area can be large, it is at Level II that they find the exact dimensions of the actual mine field.

Level III- Using only manual deminers, they clear all the area going down to 20 centimeters at 5-centimeter intervals. The area, when completed, will be certified by the supervisors. Aseguramiento de Calidad Interna (ACI), or quality control, is carried out before an area is certified mine safe. A different squad operating in the same front comes into the area to do the quality assurance (QA). They choose a random 10 percent of the designated area and check for mines using dogs and manual demining. If a mine is found they check the entire area.

History of the Third Front

  • 1996- developed a demining plan and carried out training
  • 1997- demining of electrical towers
  • 1998- demined highway and bridges between Juigalpa and El Ramos
  • 1999- Hurricane Mitch Emergency Plan-roads and bridges were checked so that the infrastructure could be rebuilt. It was determined that on average, the mines were only displaced 100 centimeters by the floodwaters.
  • 1999/2000- revised plan and certified bridges
  • 2001- continue National Demining Plan

There have been 4800 mines/UXO destroyed in the third front since 1997. They also found 153,476 metal objects. As many people working in mine action are aware, demining is a time consuming process, the stress level is high, and the same meticulous steps need to be followed regardless-the detector sounds the same for a metal object or a mine. It is not uncommon for the deminers to remove 120 pieces of metal in one day.

In The Field

MARMINCA’s field operation headquarters for Nicaragua’s for Third Front is in Juigalpa. I was lucky enough to be visiting the area on the day that many of the supervisors for MARMINCA were at the Juigalpa headquarters updating the Tabla de Chequeo. Many were eager to practice their English and conversations about demining operations could still be communicated. After a morning spent on detailed briefings by Captain Curti and Captain Siquiera, we walked the cobblestone streets of Juigalpa for lunch in a small restaurant that the MARMINCA staff frequents. The supervisors talked frankly about the stresses of demining. Many were looking forward to returning home in September. Captain Wilson of Brazil is the supervisor for the CR operations. Because he and Captain Decio, also of Brazil, spoke the best English, they did translating when needed, including ordering my lunch. The fresh ground tortillas, plantinos and the sweet and thick fruit drinks were exotic to me and delicious.

The drive to the field operation went quickly as Captain Decio described the area surrounding the electrical towers that were being demined. The landscape was dotted with small shelters. Cattle, pigs and horses roamed freely, often directly in front of our car. We reached the demining operation in late afternoon. Electrical towers stretched into the horizon. The terrain was rolling grassland with some low-growing trees and shrubs. The weather was hot, arid and breezy even though this was the rainy season.

The Nicaraguan army platoon was headquartered out of an indigenous adobe home. Tents as well as the dog kennels comprised the surrounding area. The deminers stood at the camp, waiting for us and ready to work.

As all who have watched or participated in any demining operation know, the universal slow, methodical and deliberate steps were carried out quietly and efficiently. Walking through the safe lane, the handler and his dog began work as cattle grazed nearby and women hung wash at the adobe headquarters. As the dog obediently sat down indicating the presence of a mine, the detectorista went to work and soon his detector sounded. Retracing his steps, the sondeador followed. All sound seemed to vanish, at that moment the whole world was comprised of that single deminer.

Expertly, skillfully and surprisingly quickly the deminer prodded, uncovered and revealed the mine sitting in the dry deathlike earth. As he stepped away, I finally exhaled.

If these men are afraid, they do not show it. If they are tense, they do not reveal it. Many of the men I talked to stated that what keeps them focused is the humanitarian value of their work. Every mine found contains an inherent value of increased safety for them, the community, and Central America as a whole.

*All photos courtesy of MAIC

Contact Information

Margaret Busé
Mine Action Information Center
James Madison University
One Court Square, MSC 8504
Harrisonburg, VA 22807

Tel: 540-568-2503