The Colombian military, with the help of FARC guerrillas, has begun a project that seeks to clear landmines in a small town in the north of the country where the number of explosives exceed the number of inhabitants.
The first joint landmine removal project, agreed in March as part of ongoing efforts to end Colombia’s 51-year-old armed conflict, is taking place in the township of El Orejon.
The tiny village has long been controlled by the FARC’s 36th Front that has used the landmines to protect itself, and its interests in local coca cultivation and drug trafficking by booby-trapping the area.
Army and FARC working together
“For the first time after more than 50 years of war, a Colombian army battalion and the FARC jointly are carrying out activities that benefit a population that’s been severely victimized,” announced Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator at ongoing peace talks with the FARC, told press last week.
The activities are carried out by an army explosives expert and his team who have been joined by the FARC’s local explosives expert to remove the landmines planted by the guerrillas who until a few weeks ago were still fiercely fighting the military in the area.
Retired General Rafael Colon is supervising the joint operation and the guerrillas and members of the military are accompanied by a Norwegian Humanitarian Aid unit and members of the Red Cross.
How the demining works
Equipped with detailed maps of the region, the FARC’s explosives expert pinpoints exactly where mines have been planted and which techniques were used.
The detailed description of the location and the construction of the landmines helps the military determine which techniques to use to dismantle the deadly explosives.
The first step towards clearing the area was cordoning off the minefields, making sure a big red sign saying “Danger, landmines” prevented locals from stepping on one of the dozens of landmines placed in the area once consumed by war.
After that, members of the anti-explosives squad of the military enter the marked zone and, using the guerrilla’s instructions on how the mines are detonated, remove the explosives one by one.
The project in El Orejon alone is expected to last months, maybe even half a year, indicating how long it will take for Colombia to be free of landmines, who have consistently been used by the FARC in spite of the method being banned by the Geneva convention and the high number of civilian casualties they produce.
As confidence between the two former enemies is growing, newspaper El Tiempo reported Sunday that other members of the FARC’s 36th front will join their military enemies and will be putting on the same protective army overalls and actively help remove the mines they planted in the area.
While FARC guerrillas in other parts of the country continue combating their military enemies, “the seed of hope, of peace, has been planted in this community. We have to take care of her,” said the government’s chief negotiator.
Nevertheless, critics of the talks have claimed that the FARC has continued to lay landmines in other parts of the country where the guerrillas are involved in heavy combat with the military.
Slow progress in peace talks
Talks between Colombia’s largest and oldest-living rebel group have been ongoing since 2012 and have since produced partial agreements on rural reform, the guerrillas’ abandoning of drug trafficking activities and the FARC’s integration to Colombian political life.
The most recent accord, closed last week, was on the formation of a truth commission that will seek to clarify what happened during the conflict. This commission will take effect if a final peace deal is reached.
The two negotiating teams are still talking about the two remaining points on the peace talks agenda; Victims and End of Violence.