Land Mines in Colombia Take a Civilian Toll
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In South America, one measure of Colombia's long, murky internal conflict is land mines. It used to be that the military used them to battle the country's leftist guerillas. Now the guerillas are using them. The targets are soldiers, but the victims are increasingly civilians.
NPR's Juan Forero reports from Bogota.
JUAN FORERO: In the course of Colombia's conflict, the military laid down thousands of mines. The army has in recent years lifted its mines from fields and trails and says there are mines only around sensitive military bases. The army no longer plants mines, but the rebels do - particularly now as a defensive measure against the more offensive-minded military.
In a new report called Maiming the People, Human Rights Watch says the weapons are having a devastating impact on civilians. Last year, well over 300 civilians were killed or maimed - dozens of them children. It's a big jump from the 28 civilian casualties recorded in 1999.
Maria McFarland wrote the report. She says the indiscriminate use of land mines violates international humanitarian law.
Ms. MARIA McFARLAND (Human Rights Watch): Because they're cheap to make, the guerillas have called them the weapon of the poor. Of course, there is simply no excuse for using these weapons because what they end up doing is injuring and killing civilians. It's not considered legitimate.
FORERO: The FARC, a 43-year-old peasant movement, is ostensibly fighting to overthrow the state. But the group's increasingly involved in cocaine trafficking and the FARC is notorious for hostage taking. Last month, the FARC admitted that 11 civilian hostages it had been holding since 2002 were killed in one of their camps, outraging a country tired of war.
Juan Manuel Santos is Colombia's defense minister. He says land mines terrorize troops. Last year the army suffered 800 casualties due to land mines, with 169 troops dying from their wounds.
Mr. JUAN MANUEL SANTOS (Defense Minister, Colombia): Of the total losses that we have in our military, roughly 55 to 58 percent - and could be even higher -could go up to 60 percent - are due to land mines, which is a very worrisome situation because what it means is that we're having more casualties due to mines than to the war itself.
FORERO: The Colombian government signed a 1997 treaty banning land mines, as have most other nations. Indeed, in the majority of conflict zones, the use of land mines is going down. Not Colombia; it's increasing. According to Human Rights Watch, more people are maimed and killed here by land mines than anywhere else in the world.
Alvaro Jimenez is director of the Colombian chapter of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. He says the impact of land mine injuries go far beyond those killed or hurt.
Mr. ALVARO JIMENEZ (International Campaign to Ban Land Mines): (Through Translator) We found everywhere that those mines have a terrible impact on civilians. In various towns in the country there are big tracks that have been abandoned by the communities and they now look like ghost towns because no one lives there.
FORERO: The mines, he says, are homemade, costing about $1 each. They're made from simple material, from plastic bottles to old radios. To remove each mine, though, can cost $900 in the best of circumstances. Aside from the cost, de-mining groups are hesitant to remove the weapons since Colombia's war is far from over. Jimenez says there is no guarantee that once mines are removed the guerillas won't replant.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.