‘Mine-free’ Countries of Central/South America: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Suriname
by Matthew Voegel [ Center for International Stabilization and Recovery ]
All graphics courtesy of the author
Landmines and unexploded ordnance have had an enormous effect on countries in the Western Hemisphere, specifically in Central and South America. Various wars and internal conflicts in these regions have promulgated the use of indiscriminate weapons. Many of these countries, which have since resolved the conflicts, are still in the process of clearing and eradicating landmines and other explosive remnants of war1 in their territories and, thus, are minimizing the threat they pose to citizens.
There are a few countries, however, that have seen successful clearance operations and are able to declare themselves either “mine free”2 or “impact free.”3 Because of efforts by the Organization of American States since 1995, the nations of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Suriname have all successfully completed their demining programs and are able to label themselves as being free from the humanitarian impact of landmines. The government of El Salvador also declared itself “mine free” in 1994.4
Although Costa Rica was mostly spared the effects of the Central American military conflicts in the 1980s, landmines were found on the northern border shared with Nicaragua during the turbulence of that decade. According to the 1999 Landmine Monitor Report, it was estimated that contamination was focused in some 20 to 25 different sites scattered along the border, and that each area measured between 100 by 200 meters and 200 by 500 meters (120 by 239 yards and 239 by 598 yards ).5
The OAS Acción Integral contra las Minas Antipersonal program, with technical support from Inter-American Defense Board, offered assistance to Costa Rican deminers as clearance operations began in 1996. After the country suffered an economic crisis that resulted in a temporary halt to mine clearance in 2001,6 clearance activities resumed until December 2002, when Costa Rica officially completed its demining plan and was affirmed as being safe from landmines.
It was reported that from 1996 to December 2002, Costa Rican deminers were able to destroy 446 landmines and clear around 131,641 square meters (33 acres) of land, both of which created a span of 152 kilometers (94 miles) of secured communities.7 Costa Rica completed its national demining plan seven years before the expected deadline and was the first of all the countries assisted by the OAS’ mine-action program to conclude its entire mine-clearance program.8
El Salvador’s landmine problem is directly related to its long, irregular civil war,which finally ended when the Salvadorangovernment and guerrillas of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional reached peace in 1992. During the war, both groups were responsible for distributing large amounts of mines and other ordnance across El Salvador’s 14 provinces. The Salvadoran government has declared its territory “mine free” since 1994 on several occasions. The country became a signatory to the Ottawa Convention9 in December 1997; however, even though the country has been able to clear a substantial number of landmines, El Salvador still has a small problem with other ERW.
While local nongovernmental organizations and the municipal government have recognized the ERW problem, they have also been able to determine that the threat presented by ERW to civilians is relatively low. The government of El Salvador reported that no demining activities took place in 2007.10 According to the 2008 Landmine Monitor Report, there were four individuals injured due to ERW and improvised explosive devices in 2007, and there were no incidents reported between January and June 2008. The last reported landmine casualty in El Salvador was in 1994.10
Due to an internal conflict that lasted 36 years, the landscape of Guatemala became contaminated with a small number of landmines that paled in comparison to the amount of unexploded ordnance left throughout the territory. According to the 2001 Landmine Monitor Report, in 1997, the government’s Executive Coordinating Unit, which ran the national demining program at that time, estimated there were between 5,000 and 8,000 pieces of UXO in Guatemala.11 The only registered minefield in the country was laid down by the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, the guerrilla organization that fought government forces around the Tajumulco volcano.12 The area was cleared through the joint effort of the URNG, the United Nations and Guatemala’s Army in 1996, right before Guatemala formally signed the Ottawa Convention in December 1997.
The following year, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the OAS to receive assistance with completing its national clearance plan. For the next seven years, the OAS assisted Guatemalan authorities with demining and the clearance and destruction of large quantities of UXO. Guatemala destroyed 518 landmines/pieces of UXO and was also able to clear 11,167 square meters (3 acres) of land.6 In late 2005, Guatemala was finally able to declare itself landmine-impact free, having completed its national clearance plan almost three years before the 2009 deadline required by the Ottawa Convention.
Considering how dispersed the contamination from ERW was within Guatemala, however, small traces of ERW are occasionally found by local citizens who, in turn, report such findings to government authorities. According to the most recent edition of the Landmine Monitor Report, from the beginning of 2007 to May 2008, there was no record of any casualties from landmines or other ERW. This trend is a good sign, considering in 2005 there were nine reported ERW casualties. Landmine casualties in Guatemala have been non-existent since the end of the internal conflict in 1996.12
The Honduran borders shared with both Nicaragua and El Salvador were the two centralized areas of mine ERW contamination in Honduras. During the 1980s, militants and soldiers from the armed conflicts in both Nicaragua and El Salvador laid mines along the borders inside Honduran territory. Having become familiar with the devastating effects of landmines and other ERW, the Honduran government signed the Ottawa Convention in December 1997.
Honduras began receiving assistance from the OAS and its mine-action arm, AICMA, since 1995, AICMA, as it was estimated that the country was plagued with around 3,000 landmines.13 For nine months, the OAS helped Honduras with mine clearance until operations ended in 2004, as the last departments of the country were demined in June of that year. From 1995 to 2004, Honduras reportedly destroyed 2,191 mines, 214 pieces of UXO and 60,521 pieces of other ERW, all of which cleared 446,799 square meters (110 acres) of terrain along its border with Nicaragua.14 Thanks to this clearance, approximately 70,000 families in the area were determined to be safe and secure from the threat of ERW.6
While Honduras considered itself to be “mine free” in 2004, the OAS determined that even after clearance, “very specific areas of Honduran territory” contained a high risk for landmine/UXO accidents because of the way the mines were laid by irregular troops,15 the high density of minefields laid across the border in particular departments of Nicaragua, issues related to the distinction of borders, and finally, environmental factors such as the possibility of future flooding.12
According to the 2008 Landmine Monitor, the latest account of any casualties in the country was in 2007 when eight victims were affected in three separate accidents involving UXO.14 In 2006, the U.S. Department of State allocated US$315,682 to DynCorp International to destroy SA/LW that the Honduran government had deemed unnecessary for its national security. DynCorp completed the project in 2007 by destroying 13,680 SA/LW, along with 2,982 landmines and 840 110-pound (55-kg) aerial bombs.16
From 1986 to 1992, both government and rebel forces emplaced around 1,000 landmines during an internal conflict in Suriname. Soon after a peace agreement was reached between the warring parties, the Suriname government initiated Operation Pur Baka. This project was sponsored by the OAS and was able to clear most of the contamination. Dense vegetation initially prevented deminers from reaching 13 or so landmines, but with help from the OAS, Suriname was able to eliminate these mines by April 2005.17
After this small operation, the OAS declared Suriname to be “mine free,”2 stating that, after completion of the project, an estimated 2,613 square meters (0.65 acres) of land was cleared and safe for civilian use.6 From 2006 to 2007, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs contracted RONCO Consulting Corporation for $459,000 to eliminate an overabundance of ammunition that the Suriname government had deemed unnecessary. During the project, RONCO destroyed 95,346 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, along with 3,210,175 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.18
Through programs sponsored by the OAS and efforts made by the individual countries previously burdened with harmful ERW, landmines have been cleared in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Suriname. After decades of destruction from landmines and other ERW, these countries have successfully declared their territories free from the impact of mines.
Matthew Voegel worked as an Editorial Assistant for The Journal of ERW and Mine Action from October 2006 through May 2009. He graduated from James Madison University in May 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in print journalism and minors in Spanish and Middle Eastern communities and migrations.
- Editor's Note: Some organizations consider mines and ERW to be two separate entities, since they are regulated by different legal documents (the former by the Ottawa Convention and Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the latter by CCW Protocol V). However, since mines are explosive devices that have similar effects to other ERW and it is often impossible to separate the two during clearance operations, some in the community have adopted a "working definition" (as opposed to a legal one) of ERW in which it is a blanket term that includes mines, UXO, abandoned explosive ordnance and other explosive devices.
- Editor's Note: Some countries and mine-action organizations are urging the use of the term "mine free," while others are espousing the term "mine safe" or "impact free." "Mine free" connotes a condition where all landmines have been cleared, whereas the terms "mine safe" and "impact free" refer to the condition in which landmines no longer pose a credible threat to a community or country.
- For more information about the Organization of American States and its Mine Action Program, please visit: http://www.oas.org/key_issues/eng/KeyIssue_Detail.asp?kis_sec=11. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- “Costa Rica.” Landmine Monitor Report 1999: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/1999/costa_rica.html. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- “Costa Rica.” Landmine Monitor Report 2001: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/2001/costa_rica/. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- Presentation by Mr. Carlos Orozco, Interim Director of the Office of Humanitarian Mine Action of the Department of Public Security (Presented at the meeting held on 3 April 2008). PowerPoint presentation can be found at: http://www.oas.org/csh/english/AICMA%20varios.asp. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- “Costa Rica.” Landmine Monitor Report 2004: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/2004/costa_rica.html. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, commonly known as the Ottawa Convention. http://www.icbl.org/treaty/text/english. Accessed 25 March 2009.
- “El Salvador.” Landmine Monitor Report 2008: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://lm.icbl.org/index.php/publications/display?url=lm/2008/countries/el_salvador.html. Accessed 15 April 2009.
- “Guatemala.” Landmine Monitor Report 2001: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/2001/guatemala/. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- “Guatemala.” Landmine Monitor Report 2008: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/2008/countries/guatemala.php. Accessed 15 April 2009
- “Honduras.” Landmine Monitor Report 2004: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/2004/honduras.html. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- “Honduras.” Landmine Monitor Report 2008: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.icbl.org/lm/2008/countries/honduras.php. Accessed 15 April 2009.
- An irregular troop refers to a fighter in an irregular military, categorized as any non-standard military unit. An irregular troop is a broad term, with other names including, for example, guerrilla, insurgent, or revolutionary given the tactics and goal of the fighting.
- “Honduras.” To Walk the Earth in Safety: The United States’ Commitment to Humanitarian Mine Action and Conventional Weapons Destruction. U.S. Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. 7th edition, 2008. Pg. 42. Online at: http://www.state.gov/t/pm/rls/rpt/walkearth/2008/. Accessed 21 January 2009.
- “Suriname.” Landmine Monitor Report 2006: Towards a Mine-Free World. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://tinyurl.com/c6sz3j. Accessed 25 March 2009.
- “Suriname.” To Walk the Earth in Safety: The United States’ Commitment to Humanitarian Mine Action and Conventional Weapons Destruction. U.S. Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. 7th edition, 2008. Pg. 43. This publication can be accessed online at: http://www.state.gov/t/pm/rls/rpt/walkearth/2008/. Accessed 21 January 2009.
The Journal of ERW and Mine Action
Mine Action Information Center
Center for International Stabilization and Recovery
James Madison University