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Colombia's rebels step up a brutal tactic

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

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / September 7, 2009

Civilian Hazard: Mines planted by suspected leftist rebels were found last month by government troops close to a schoolhouse in rural Boquerón, Colombia.

Sibylla Brodzinsky


Boquerón, Colombia

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.

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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."

"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.