Colombian villagers want own peace deal

Fed up with residents dying, local officials will try to get leftist rebels to remove land mines. Is this a model?

The latest victim of land mines in this tiny fog-shrouded hamlet atop the Andes mountains is Luisa Fernanda Ceballos Valencia, a 45-day-old baby.

Luisa Fernanda's grandfather, Manuel, stepped on a mine and lost a leg as the family entered the town last month. When the baby's mother, Nancy, came to the rescue, she also stepped on a mine and is now in a wheelchair. Little Luisa Fernanda is recovering from shrapnel wounds.

The plight of the Ceballos Valencia family isn't unusual in this town of 600, four hours east of Medellín. In the past two years, 60 people have died or were injured by land mines sewn by insurgents battling for control of this region.

But rather than waiting for a national peace deal between the government and rebels, the residents of Aquitania are taking their safety into their own hands.

Just as they negotiated an end to a nine-month siege of their town by leftist rebels, this week they will try to persuade them to unilaterally de-mine the area. With the help of local officials and a land-mine group, they hope to come to an agreement. If successful, the organization that's working with the residents hopes it's an approach that can be exported to other towns in Colombia.

"The goal is to talk with everyone," says Alvaro Jiménez, head of the Colombia Campaign Against Land Mines, which is affiliated with the Geneva-based International Campaign Against Land Mines. "It isn't necessary to end the war in Colombia in order to attend to the needs of the communities."

Colombia has the third highest number of land-mine victims in the world (812 last year), according to the government, behind Angola and Afghanistan. Thirty-nine percent of its victims are civilians rather than soldiers. It is the only country in Latin America where mines are used; the Colombian government is complying with international obligations to destroy its arsenal, but the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) - are increasing their use.

President Alvaro Uribe has launched a major offensive against the FARC that has them retreating to the jungles, sowing land mines as they go. "When you analyze the success of Uribe's democratic security strategy, the only subject that doesn't show favorable results is the subject of land mines," says Mr. Jiménez, who adds that the number of land-mine accidents in 2005 was already on track to exceed those of 2004.

Antioquia has some reason to believe the rebels will agree to de-mine the area. In an unprecedented move last December - as part of national peace talks that have since failed - the ELN agreed to remove explosives around Micoahumado, a town which shares the title with Antioquia as having the most mine victims this past year.

The ELN removed 71 mines, yet refused to de-mine the town's soccer field and part of the highway because it was too dangerous. A major problem with de-mining in Colombia is that the only people who know exactly where the mines are members of armed groups who may since have died in combat.

The Micoahumado deal has also run into trouble because Uribe's government frowns upon local governments negotiating with insurgents. They see it as undermining the national peace strategy. "We don't want to damage the community's process," insists Luz Piedad Herrera, the head of the Vice President's Observatory on Landmines. "Nongovernmental groups can come in to verify, but they can't negotiate with the groups."

In Aquitania, citizens are moving ahead with plans to broker their own deal. On May 13, the Campaign Against Mines and local officials will meet with the community to start the process. The hope is that despite continuing conflict in the area, the armed groups will agree to de-mine farming and recreation sites, schools, and areas near water sources.

They hope the outcome will be successful because Aquitania already has experience with striking a peace deal. In March 2004, the FARC was fighting against right-wing paramilitaries and it banned cars on the dirt road from Aquitania to the nearest highway. After food supplies ran out, villagers negotiated with both sides to guarantee safe passage via mule to get supplies.

"Here at one time there wasn't even a kilogram of salt," says Jose Ignacio Ramírez, president of the town council, who was part of a group of villagers who decided they'd had enough. "We organized some people from the community and some leaders from the farms. The paramilitaries had also issued threats," he says. "We talked with both groups."

In December, transport resumed and the villagers went back to work. But soon land mines were placed along the route from town to the farms outside the village where people work.

Though the Army removes mines - 25 were deactivated last month, says the local commander - they are quickly resewn by the rebels. Marta Montoya, a teacher in the village, is skeptical the FARC will voluntarily remove mines. "These are their weapons," she says.

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