CBRNe Country Profile
By Katerina Zejdlova, Analyst, IB Consultancy
Internal conflict with armed guerillas and anti-personnel landmine use
The South American republic of Colombia boasts a picturesque and a versatile landscape. However, the rich topsoil of its fertile rural landscape conceals a shocking reality – the second highest number of anti-personnel mines in the world. It is roughly estimated that more than 11,500 mines were laid here in the past quarter century, with Colombia only surpassed by Afghanistan ravaged by protracted wars.
Colombia’s mine contamination is largely a result of decades of a conflict with non-state armed groups, notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN). The country saw heavy, systematic use of landmines since at least the 1990s. Even though Colombia’s civil war started in the mid-1960s and grew in intensity, it remained considered a “low-intensity asymmetric war.” This characteristic constitutes the ideal condition for the use of concealed or dormant munitions, allowing to kill and injure effortlessly in abstentia. Landmines, however, do not discriminate between combatant and non-combatant, soldier and farmer or militant and child, resulting in substantial numbers of civilian casualties.
The FARC planted these landmines to halt the advance of armed forces as well as to protect their strategic positions, smuggling routes and illicit crops in rural areas. Because FARC and other groups did not properly map their mined areas, there are understandably widespread fears of these hazards in rural communities due to the lack of specific details of landmine locations. Vast swathes of land therefore remain unused for fear of these vicious weapons, with this fact posing an immeasurable economic hardship as well as causing distress in the local communities.
The human cost of landmines
The human cost of landmines has been enormous. For decades, these mines have killed or maimed around 11,000 people that we know of and have contributed to the displacement of over six million Colombians. In some communities the overwhelming presence of landmines physically blocks people’s access to basic services such as healthcare, food markets, fresh water sources and schools. As recently as 2018, the number of casualties from landmine explosions increased once again, prompting renewed public fears in rural communities.
As it stands, dangerous landmines still lay dormant in 30 of the country’s 31 regional departments today, especially in the remote rural areas where nearly 50% of all landmine casualties have claimed civilian lives. To examine the issue in detail, more than staggering 700 out of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities once used to have landmines. However, with some encouraging progress made lately, 391 in total have now been declared as mine-free as of November 2019.
Post-conflict demining efforts
The 2015 peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government also included an agreement on a joint demining effort, which initially focused on the areas with the highest levels of anti-personnel mines, IEDs and UXOs. Gradually, having expanded over the years with the aid of many NGOs and trained volunteers, crucial demining efforts have been making a difference across the country.
The following treaties are key to Colombia’s commitment to tackle the landmine threat:
- The 1997 Ottawa Treaty(The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention)
- 2015 Colombian Peace Agreement which included provisions about humanitarian demining and the FARC’s obligation to actively participate in the clearing, decontamination and identification of mined areas
The launch of the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia in 2016 runs alongside Colombia’s national program, with the aim to help Colombia reach its demining targets. Joint international response attempts to strengthen Colombia’s demining efforts and fortify the Peace Agreement.
The Colombian Armed Forces
- The Joint Task Force OMEGA was created in 2003, originally established with the aim to defeat and capture FARC leaders and fighters. The OMEGA units now also contain e.g. anti-drug and C-IED elements
While each division of the armed forces – air, land and sea – has its own CBRN team, the larger focus of CBRNe lies with the “E” in the form of demining/EOD units described in detail below:
The Colombian Army
- The Demining Battalion No. 60 “Coronel Gabino Gutiérrez” (BIDES) was established in 2009. It successfully conducted large-scale demining operations across the country. This Battalion was later transformed into the Engineers Brigade for Humanitarian Demining N°1 (BRDEH) in 2016 to fully comply with the Ottawa Treaty and the Peace Process Agreement. The Brigade consists of more than 5,000 personnel and currently comprises 6 humanitarian demining battalions and 1 demining battalion stationed across different regions of the country. Since its foundation BRDEH has conducted large-scale demining operations, complying with the Colombian government’s commitment to clear 1,5 million square miles in the year of 2018.
- The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD) falls under the National System of Disaster Risk Management (SNGRD). Its primary aim is to coordinate disaster response and improve the capabilities of public and private entities as well as societal preparedness when it comes to disaster response. It is also the primary Army unit responsible for CBRN in general.
Interesting fact: In July 2019 the Colombian Army’s International Center for Demining was admitted to NATO’s network of educational and training centers. This makes Colombia the first country in Latin America with skills and capabilities advanced enough to offer training in the field of demining.
The Colombian Navy
- In 2014 the Marine Corps Explosives and Demining Group (AEDIM) was created. Its mission is to coordinate military and humanitarian demining operations for the purposes of enabling both civilian and military movement across the territory. Its Humanitarian Demining Company comprises three Platoons authorized to clear danger zones of mines, IEDs and UXOs within the zone under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces. Altogether, AEDIM comprises five platoons and seven research teams.
Colombian National Police
- A specialized National Incident Response CBRN Unit is nested under the Counter-Explosives and Counter-Terrorism Unit (GRANT), part of the Anti-Terrorism and CBRN Incidents Response Section (CIARA). GRANT itself additionally includes 116 explosive technicians distributed across 44 Police departments. The mission of GRANT is to prevent and intervene in incidents involving explosives, IEDs and CBRN agents, as well as to conduct post-incident investigations and controlled explosions. In addition, the Unit also maintains a database of all incidents and is responsible for the storage and transport of explosives.
The National Fire Brigade of Colombia
is the entity responsible for the regulation and coordination of all Fire Service Departments in the country. The National Fire Brigade initiated specialized CBRN training in the country in 2005 in conjunction with the OPCW.
The Bogotá Fire Department
- A skilled HazMat Unit (MATPEL-REC-NBQ) was created in 2008. When dealing with biological incidents they work in collaboration with the national health authorities, especially during large-scale events
Civil Humanitarian Demining Organizations (OCDH)
are a grouping of both national and international NGOs and civil organizations accredited as the country’s official humanitarian demining actors, are authorized to conduct demining operations on Colombian territory.
- The HALO Trust is a global humanitarian NGO originating from the UK, dedicated to humanitarian demining and UXO disposal across the world
o Activity in Colombia: since 2009 (active demining efforts: since 2013)
o Regions active: Antioquia, Meta, Tolima, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo (soon to begin work in the north of Santander)
o Resources in Colombia: 550 personnel
- Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) is a Norwegian NGO with a presence in Latin America of three decades, active in various humanitarian projects.Colombia: since 2009 (active demining efforts: since 2013)
o Activity in Colombia: In 2015 it designated the lead organization in the demining efforts following the peace deal
o Resources in Colombia: 130 accredited C-IED personnel; K-9 dogs; ARMTRAC 20T minesweepers
- Danish Demining Group (DDG) is a Danish civil society group, forming a part of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
o Activity in Colombia: since 2011; accredited as OCDH in 2018
o Regions active: Meta, Cundinamarca and Caquetá
o Resources in Colombia: First local personnel trained in March 2019
- Campaña Colombiana Contra Minas (CCCM) is a Colombian NGO formed as a part of a larger organization - the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) - together with other initiatives
o Activity in Colombia: since 1999; authorized as OCDH since 2016
o Regions active: 22 out of 32 departments
o Resources in Colombia: 16 research teams + 7 demining teams
- Humanicemos is a demining organization in charge of implementing the recent demining commitments of the Peace Deal and currently the most advanced reintegration project in Colombia
o Resources in Colombia: currently in the process of developing operational capacity
- Perigeo is an Italian humanitarian demining NGO
o Resources in Colombia: cca 150 certified EOD personnel
Humanity and Inclusion is a global independent NGO which extended its focus onto demining activities
o Activity in Colombia: in 2005 joined AICMA in demining; accredited as OCDH since 2016
o Regions active: Cauca, Caquetá, Meta and Nariño
In October 2019 as a part of the Colombian Army’s “Campaña Bicentenario” (“Bicentennial Campaign”) plan, the Caguán Special Commando under the OMEGA Joint Force managed to locate and destroy 30 IED splanted by various armed groups in the San Vicente del Caguán. The Marte (explosive technician) groupsconducted controlled explosions of the IEDs following the securing of the area. The “” as a part of the 200-year anniversary of the country aims to strengthen the image of the Colombian Army as a modern democratic public institution ready to confront the challenges of the future.
The ongoing joint demining efforts in Colombia form a part of the wider mandate of the following decades of internal conflict. The Colombian demining landscape under the uniquely combines the work of the Armed Forces and ‘Civil Humanitarian Demining Organizations,’ with the goal to achieve a Colombia free of landmines by 2025. Even though many obstacles still lie ahead and the demining goalpost – originally set to 2021 – is likely to be moved to 2025 according to latest indications, the road to a mine-free Colombia is nevertheless beginning to look progressively more promising.