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Land mines take a toll on Colombia's poor

Workers in the Colombian government's coca-eradication effort find the job to be deadly dangerous. Many have died, and the maimed say the government has abandoned those injured by mines.

March 06, 2010|By Chris Kraul

Reporting from Manzanares, Colombia — Colombia may no longer lead the world in land mine victims, but the explosives placed by antigovernment rebels are still sowing tragedy, especially among the poor peasants and ex-combatants recruited to manually eradicate coca plants.

The pain is especially acute in this small coffee-growing town in western Colombia, where recruiters for the eradication teams have focused their efforts. Ten local men have been killed and 30 wounded by mines since the program started in 2005. That's 7% of the 547 residents who signed up, according to city officials.

Several victims told The Times last month that they have been abandoned by the national government and the private contractors hired to recruit the teams and that they receive no disability or medical benefits. City Atty. Ruben Dario Norena said their predicament places an unfair burden on the local government.

The upshot is that what once seemed a blessing to those who grabbed at the jobs as a way to double the typical farm wage of $250 a month has turned out to be a curse.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the national government used intermediary firms to recruit and, technically, employ the workers, confusing those who want to bring grievances.

"We went in high spirits, feeling like we were doing something positive for Colombia," said Luis Eduardo Franco, 38, who was disabled by severe back and knee injuries when a mine exploded as he cleared coca in 2006. "But since I got screwed up, the government has turned its back on me and I feel useless."

The last two years have been especially dangerous for eradicators, with 128 killed or wounded by mines or stray bullets. That's nearly five times the toll of 27 killed and wounded in 2006-07, according to statistics provided by the Colombian president's office.

Fanning out across the nation, the eradicators work in teams of 30, using long metal rods to pull up the coca bushes, whose leaves are used to produce cocaine. The ground crews complement an aerial fumigation effort. Last year, plants covering 425,000 acres were killed by aerial and manual teams in a program partially funded by the U.S. government.

Most of the land mines have been planted by the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to protect their bases and transit routes, or in the coca fields to discourage eradication. The bombs are often tied to the plants' roots, detonating when the plants are lifted.

The rebel group controls most of the cocaine trade from crop to export, U.S. officials say, and it plants the mines to protect its supply of coca, which is grown by farmers committed to selling to FARC labs.

"They send [the eradicators] out with an armed forces escort, which uses metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs to try to disarm the mines," said Alvaro Jimenez, director of the Colombian Campaign Against Landmines, a victims advocacy group. "But obviously something is not working as well as it should."

Army officers said the mines can be difficult to detect because they are made with plastic and wood instead of metal. The dogs are confused because the rebels disguise the smell of the explosives with materials such as coffee grounds. The FARC was taught by the Basque militant group ETA and the Irish Republican Army how to make mines from easily obtainable chemicals, the officers said.

Jimenez noted that one-third of the eradicators killed or wounded by mines were from Manzanares and other rural parts of Caldas state, a reflection of the heavy recruiting here by the firm Empleamos and other contractors hired by the government.

One of last year's worst explosions, in a field being cleared in Tibu in northeastern Colombia, killed three eradicators and wounded two, all from Caldas.

The discouraging situation in Manzanares contrasts with a more heartening one nationwide. Last year, the land mine toll was 632 hurt or killed, down from a record 1,178 in 2006.

Jimenez said the decline probably stemmed from more awareness thanks to education programs directed at rural residents and from fewer mines planted by the FARC in populated areas, possibly as a result of the outrage generated by the deaths of children.

Colombia now trails Afghanistan for the dubious distinction of highest number of land mine victims, according to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Last month, the Japanese government donated two mine-clearing machines to Colombia. Each Hitachi machine, which resembles a retooled steam shovel, can clear in a day what it takes manual teams three weeks to do, Japanese Ambassador Tatsumaro Terazawa said at a ceremony at Fort Tolemaida, a military base about 60 miles south of Bogota, the capital. But the machines, which weigh several tons, are of little use to eradication teams that are sent to hilly, largely inaccessible terrain.

Terazawa said Japan had donated about 70 of the machines to governments most plagued by mines, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan.

"We see how land mines cause so much pain and tears in this beautiful country," Terazawa told the crowd of government and military officials at the ceremony. "We want those tears to turn to smiles again."

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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