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Criminal Gangs and Landmine Use in Latin America

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An uptick in landmine use by criminal gangs is a result of a weak, corrupt and coopted state in a region working hard to demine after decades of conflict

April 2022

Latin America is experiencing a disturbing uptick in the use of landmines, reflecting growing criminality and lack of state control in many areas. The increase in landmine use is especially disheartening considering that the region had made great strides in reducing landmines in the last twenty years in what Voice of America declared in 2021 as the “region hit-hardest by mines in the whole world.”

The huge number of landmines in Latin America is somewhat surprising given the absence of recent interstate conflict. Indeed, many of the current landmines are from intrastate struggles between a government and rebel group or a result of criminal gangs marking their territory. The intrastate conflicts are a sign of the relative political instability of many countries in the region over the last decades (of which the proxy civil wars of the Cold War were a part).

The number of landmines in Latin America – both mines removed and still waiting to be removed – is also surprising because many of the historical interstate conflicts that led to mining never became large shooting wars. As such, few people outside of the involved nations have heard of the conflicts and thus the fact there were, and still are, significant numbers of landmines is surprising.

Current Landmine Use – Non-State Actors

In Michoacan, Mexico cartels use land mines to stake out their territory. Historically, land mines have been very uncommon in Mexico. The landmines used in Michoacan are homemade and increasingly widespread. In early 2022, a 79 year-old man was killed as he drove over a landmine. In March 2022, the Mexican army was working hard to demine these recently mined areas and had removed around 250 landmines.

The use of landmines in Mexico by cartels is but one example of these non-state actors using increasingly sophisticated weaponry normally used exclusively by state actors. Cartels are using attack drones, military guns and heavily armored vehicles. The use of these weapons is an example of how the security threats in much of Latin America are not between states but rather between criminal gangs battling each other or different parts of the state (similar to the threat of criminal gangs and drug smuggling in Central America).

Drones, landmines and other weapons normally used exclusively by state actors are now used more frequently by criminal gangs

In Venezuela, Colombian rebel groups that operate in Venezuelan territory are planting homemade landmines in a country that had previously eradicated landmines. These are dissidents of the FARC who are continuing their fight against the Colombian government, the rebel group that signed a 2016 peace treaty with the Colombian government. Venezuela’s left-wing government has been accused of welcoming the left-wing FARC dissidents (it appears that of the dissidents are aligned with the Venezuelan government while others are not). The dissidents are suspected of cocaine trafficking and other criminal activity and investigations have showed parts of the Venezuelan military of the Venezuelan military are involved in this criminal activity. Their criminal activities have put them in conflict with drug cartels operating out of the same territory and thus a possible reason for the mining. In early 2022, eight people were killed by the mines. Ironically, it is the Venezuelan military demining the regions – the very military involved in drug trafficking and who welcomed FARC dissidents who laid the mines.

While the conflict in Colombia has mostly (but not completely) ended, the land mines from the civil war are still a major menace. Colombia, Venezuela's western neighbor is one of the countries with the most deaths from landmines due to Colombia’s multi-decade civil war. As part of the 2016 peace agreement, the country is working hard to clear mines but there is still much work to do. In 2021, there were over 100 victims of landmines and the goal of making the country mine-free by 2021 was not met.

Past Landmine Use – State Actors and Little-Known Conflicts

There are multiple example interstate conflicts that led to landmines but in a number of cases the landmines were simply planted and a long shooting war never broke out. In the 1970s and 1980s Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet heavily mined his nation’s borders with Peru and Argentina out of fears of war with these neighbors. Chile recently completed a multi-decade, successful demining campaign.

Peru’s northern border with Ecuador is also heavily mined. Ecuador and Peru had a disputed border which was not settled until 1998. There were periodic, short-term armed clashes between the two nations in the region which led the nations to mine their borders. The two nations are still working to remove thousands of mines which have maimed units that patrol the border. (Peru also has landmines left from their civil conflict in the 1980s and 1990s between the government and the Maoist rebel group Sendero Luminoso.)

Different from the regional conflicts between Chile, Peru and Ecuador, El Salvador and Nicaragua experienced horrible civil wars that were also proxy conflicts between the United States and international communism. These conflicts led to horrific landmine use. El Salvador has furiously tried to clear all their landmines, and it appears to be at least over 97 percent complete (although knowing for sure is always difficult).

Nicaragua also worked very hard to demine their territory after decades of conflict. Nicaragua was invaded by rebels backed by the United States during the 1980s, and, as such, their mines were mostly on their international borders. The effort to demine concluded in 2010 and is a de-mining success story.

While the Mexican and Venezuelan armies are demining recently mined areas, these national governments are also partly responsible for landmine use by criminal gangs

The Future of Landmines in Latin America

Latin America is at a crossroads in its fight against landmines. On the one hand, international conflict between states in the region is low. Some countries have poor relationships – such as the relationship Venezuela has with both Brazil and Colombia – but this could change depending on this year’s elections. Historical rivalries – such as between Peru and Chile – will always be present. However, neither the current interstate tensions nor these historical rivalries are the cause of current armed conflict and increased landmine use in Latin America.

In many Latin American nations, the state’s inability to maintain a “monopoly on violence” (to use Max Weber’s term) means that non-state actors are engaging forms of violence that state actors normally engage in.

An increase in criminal activity in other Latin American nations means that they, too, could experience increased violence and landmine use. Will the already brutal Central America and Brazilian drug gangs and paramilitaries see the drones and landmines Mexico’s drug gangs are using and imitate them? Even in countries like Chile and Ecuador – which do not have as bloody a history with drug smugglers – criminal gangs are using increasingly advanced weaponry and initiating the brutal tactics of Mexico’s gangs.

All this is happening in a region where governments are highly corrupt, often complicit in criminal activity or absent altogether from some areas. While criminal gangs – and not states – may be those laying the mines today in Latin America, the state’s inability or unwillingness to stop them is just as significant a factor in the uptick in current landmine use. A strong, uncorrupt state serving all people and present everywhere is the best – and maybe only – defense.

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