Shortly after noon on December 4, 2009, Diomedez Ortega, a brawny brown-skinned man with dark eyes and the sharp ears that go along with a military crew cut, rappelled from a helicopter to the outskirts of a guerilla camp in the Paramillo Massif, an isolated mountainous region in western Colombia. Ortega, a 29-year-old Colombian Special Forces veteran, ran a dozen meters through the tall grass, glaring at the field ahead while his nine comrades struggled through the uneven terrain. He stopped a few yards short of the camp and established a line of fire. Standing still, he signaled the rest of the soldiers to cover the unit's flanks. Ortega clutched his rifle, took a step forward and felt a searing pain tearing through his legs.
"It was like a movie," he said one recent morning. "I didn't see anything. I felt the landmine explode beneath my feet, but I remained conscious. I realized I was the one who had been hit. I was knocked down." He paused and then added, "You feel powerless, useless, a hundred percent vulnerable. And you have to accept it, for what else can you do? You are a soldier."
The Ongoing Battle
Mines are a seemingly endless scourge in Colombia. The country had the largest number of mine casualties in 2006, and the third largest number of mine-related deaths in the past two decades, according to Landmine Monitor, an independent global program that researches the humanitarian and developmental consequences of landmines. Since 1990, there have been mine-related incidents in 31 of the nation's 32 states, according to the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Mine Action (PAICMA for its Spanish acronym). As the "Lend Your Leg" campaign noted in its promotion of April 4th, International Mine Awareness Day, more than 10,000 Colombians have been affected by landmines. That figure includes 1,003 children and almost 6,400 members of the armed forces.
In many former war-zones across the world, mines are an ever-present hazard. Generally they are buried during war, and then they can be completely forgotten for years until suddenly they become the cause of a severe injury or death. In 2011, at least 66 countries reported the presence of mined areas, and 4,286 people died as a result of them -- nearly 12 each day. Seventy-five percent of those who died were civilians.
Colombia accounted for nearly 13 percent of the entire world's landmine casualties that year. Nearly three people were killed or injured by a mine every two days, the third highest casualty rate in the world. More worrying is that, contrary to global trends, the number of mine casualties in Colombia actually increased this year, according to Álvaro Jiménez, the director of the Colombian Campaign against Mines. "There have been reports of mine-related accidents in 622 municipalities, more than half of the national territory," Jiménez told Univision News. "The government cites a small number of victims, but we've always insisted that the actual figure is closer to 800,000 when you take into account the killed, the maimed, the injured and the families and communities that depend on them."
For almost 50 years, government forces have been fighting guerrilla groups throughout the national territory. During that time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have used mines to gain a tactical advantage and to protect strategic military positions. They continue to do so today, and lately, as the conflict has further intensified, they have used mines to protect coca fields from eradication efforts and to randomly strike at soldiers and police in remote rural areas.
Last year, Colombia was the only nation in the Western Hemisphere where independent observers confirmed new use of antipersonnel mines. While countries like Cambodia, Angola, Poland and Turkey have struggled to deal with explosive remnants from previous conflicts, Colombia has been forced to face a growing number of mine fields hidden by FARC and ELN.
In Putumayo, a remote jungle state in the south of the country, Carolina García, a journalist for award-winning news site La Silla Vacía, recently reported that the government was being forced to build boarding schools throughout the state as part of an effort to prevent children from stepping on mines on their way to school (in Putumayo, most children have to travel long distances to attend the state's few public schools). In Nariño, a neighboring state, 250 indigenous families were effectively trapped near the town of Tumaco by surrounding minefields planted by guerrilla groups, according to reports from local NGOs. And the situation is equally worrying in Arauca, Antioquia, Cauca and at least half a dozen other states, where there have been recent incidents involving not just guerrilla fighters and soldiers, but also pregnant women and children.
Peace negotiations between the government and FARC are currently under way in Cuba. Thus far, however, mines are not being discussed, and activists and conflict experts are worried about what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of mines that have been planted -- and that are still being planted -- in Colombia's rural areas.
"The government and the FARC need to solve the mine problem the country is facing," Jiménez said. "They need to identify what areas have been mined and how we are going to start demining those areas."
FARC and ELN have deployed antipersonnel mines throughout an estimated area of up to 100 square kilometers, according to the Landmine Monitor. Most, though not all, of them surround guerrilla bases and camps located in distant, barely accessible regions like the forests of Putumayo, the valleys of Arauca or the wastelands of the Paramillo Massif in the western tip of the Andes, where Ortega suffered his encounter with a mine.