Colombia's rebels step up a brutal tactic

FARC fighters seed country with mines made from common materials that are hard to police.

By , Correspondent

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    Civilian Hazard: Mines planted by suspected leftist rebels were found last month by government troops close to a schoolhouse in rural Boquerón, Colombia.
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The three-room schoolhouse in this tiny rural community in Colombia's Antioquia Province has been abandoned for more than four years. The families of the 40 children who used to study in Boquerón fled after 15 neighbors fell victim to land mines planted by leftist rebels along the only trail that connects them to the nearest town, San Francisco.

Today, government demining teams are advancing inch by inch along the trail, clearing the area of land mines and booby traps left behind by rebels. But even as Colombia undertakes the cumbersome and dangerous task of trying to rid its countryside of land mines, leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have given the order to plant more as the Colombian Army advances in its campaign to beat back the rebel army of about 9,000 fighters.

In an e-mail from new FARC leader Alfonso Cano that was intercepted last year, he ordered all fronts to halt the advance of the troops with minefields "since we know it's the only factor that stops and intimidates them."

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"The FARC have stopped confronting the Army, and they are using mines as their presence on the battlefield," says Gen. Freddy Padilla, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces. As a result of increased land mine use, the military has seen 15 percent more casualties than last year.

Just a few hundred feet from the school in Boquerón, the demining team found three homemade land mines – glass bottles filled with explosives and with syringes serving as pressure triggers. Using nitroglycerine to detonate the explosives, the team eliminated the threat with three deafening blasts.

But it's a grueling task. "It's exhausting and very stressful, checking an area millimeter by millimeter," says Lt. Juan Carlos Betancourt, commander of the demining platoon. In 11 months his teams have cleared 97 mines from just three miles of trail.

In the surrounding area, 257 people – civilians and soldiers – have fallen victim to the mines since 2002. The latest was in April when a soldier lost a foot.

San Francisco County is one of the most heavily mined areas of Colombia, but the land mine problem is nationwide. More than 60 percent of the counties in Colombia are believed to be contaminated with mines, planted by either of two rebel groups or by the right-wing paramilitary forces fighting them in this nation's 45-year civil conflict. Since 2000, there have been more than 7,000 victims of land mines, according to government statistics. In the first half of this year alone, 411 people have been killed or maimed by land mines, an average of more than two victims per day.

Soldier Jorge Luis Delgado lost the lower part of his left leg in a minefield in south-central Meta Province three months ago. He now hobbles around the Army's rehabilitation center in the capital, Bogotá, trying to get used to his crutches while he waits for a prosthetic.

"We didn't see it. The demining team had passed and we thought the area was clear," says Mr. Delgado, who was part of a massive military operation in southern Meta, a longtime rebel stronghold.

"They know that when a soldier falls victim to a mine, the entire operation is halted," says Col. Hansel Rodriguez, who heads the Army's engineering battalion in charge of demining.

The land mines that litter Colombia come in so many forms that it's difficult to keep up, he says. They are activated by pressure and pressure-release mechanisms, tripwires, light, and remote control using radio frequencies.

"The rebels are limited only by their own perverse imagination," says Rodriguez. Because the rebels make them with readily available materials – fertilizer, gunpowder, glass bottles, syringes – it is nearly impossible to control the flow of bomb materials.

"Making a land mine in Colombia is cheaper than the price of a Coca-Cola," says Padilla. That is in part thanks to training received from explosive experts of the former Irish Republican Army. Three Irishmen arrested in Colombia in 2001 were convicted of training the FARC but jumped bail and fled to Northern Ireland.

Luis Fernando Garrido, age 25, was trained in explosives shortly after he joined the FARC 13 years ago. He turned himself in to government troops last May, several months after losing his hand when a mine that he had helped prepare exploded prematurely.

His unit had been told to plant 24 mines in a 100-square-meter area in Meta Province where the Army was expected to pass. "They say there that mines cause more panic among the troops because it is hard for them to see a soldier [lose a limb]," he says.

Mr. Garrido says FARC no longer specifically targets civilians with mines. However, if troops use civilian footpaths or roads or are likely to stop for a rest under a certain shade tree, they will plant mines there.

For Pablo, a farmer from another Antioquia town who asked that he not be further identified, the distinction is pointless. He stepped on a mine in mid-July on a road he had walked down many times. Government eradication teams had recently gone to his town to rip up hundreds of acres of coca plants.

"The mines were meant for them," he says, surrounded by his family at a hospital in the regional capital, Medellín. "But they got me."

The FARC finance their struggle largely with money from the drug trade and from protecting the coca crops that feed it. "They're protecting their main source of income with land mines," says Vice President Francisco Santos, who heads the government campaign against land mines.

Colombia is a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty, the United Nation's convention that bans the use of land mines, and will host the treaty's second review conference in November. But at the meeting it will have to ask for an extension of the 2010 deadline to clear the country of antipersonnel mines.

With the demining teams advancing at just a few yards a day and the rebels planting more mines as they retreat, Colombia won't make it. But it is intent on recovering as many rural areas as possible. "This is a critical issue for the future of Colombia," says Mr. Santos. "What we don't do now [is] going to cost us a hundred times more in the future."

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