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Chile Is Still Littered with a Dictator's Unexploded Landmines

Augusto Pinochet left more than 100,000 landmines behind, and it's taking forever to dig them up.

by Katie Worth
Nov 11 2014, 3:55pm

A soldier begins the mine excavation process as his team looks on. Image courtesy Maj. Alejandro Perez

Abelino Paicil spends his days standing at the edge of fields, watching young men dig up landmines. Often the 59-year-old's mind wanders to when he was a young man in those fields, planting those same mines.

"They are pulling up what we sowed," said Paicil, the nurse for the Chilean Army demining company on Tierra del Fuego, the country's harsh southernmost region. "You like to see it. You like to see how things can change."

Things have changed in spades. In 1980, when Paicil was planting mines in the plains along the Magellan Strait, Chile was living under the dictatorial regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and was in the midst of border disputes with all three of its neighbors—Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.

Pinochet, convinced that a ground invasion was imminent, purchased landmines from the US and Belgium and buried them at a feverish pace. In just a few years Chile interred more than 180,000 explosive devices along its borders. They have been entombed there ever since, awaiting the enemy.

But they have never encountered an enemy. Instead, they've done battle with the unlucky hooves of cows and llamas. One hundred seventy-seven times they have blown up humans; 29 of those detonations were fatal, most recently in 2012 when a Peruvian crossing the border without documents jumped a fence into a minefield in the dark and stepped on an antipersonnel landmine. Last year a Colombian man survived similar circumstances, but lost his right leg.

Abelino Paicil is a nurse with the Chilean Army's Southern Humanitarian Demining Company. As a young man he helped bury the landmines that are now being removed by the thousands from Chile's borderlands. Paicil is on standby at the edge of minefields in case an accident occurs. Image: Katie Worth

As anachronistic as landmines seem in a country now among the most economically robust and politically stable in the world, Chile is still haunted by nearly 100,000 of them in its borderlands, a piece of the Pinochet legacy the nation has yet to overcome.

For the Southern Humanitarian Demining Company in the Tierra del Fuegan minefields, that legacy takes the form of 75 pounds of protective gear and a daily battle against ferocious wind. 

On a gusty mid-summer day in February this year, nurse Paicil sat on the bumper of a standby ambulance next to his supervisor, Major Alejandro Perez. They watched the soldiers scrutinize a field for missing explosives. A dozen soldiers shuffled forward under the cumbersome gear, brandishing metal detectors. Other soldiers cut the grass behind them to show where it was safe to walk. An officer checked the wind. If it hit 70 kilometers an hour they would call it a day: being blown over in a minefield is ill-advised.

THAT'S PART OF POLITICS, RIGHT? THINGS CHANGE

So far the wind was only blowing at 60 kilometers an hour, so they continued to search for the missing explosives. In their first pass through the field they had found 416 mines, 14 fewer than historic records indicated had been planted there. Over the last few days, during the second pass, five more turned up. That day they had found none. 

They often fail to find every landmine in the records, said Perez. Some either exploded years ago and no trace remains. Others washed away and are likely at the bottom of a nearby pond. Occasionally a local has found one and taken it home. 

Once the company has picked through a field twice with demining equipment, they declare it cleared. They take down the fences and signposts and, after a public ceremony attended by neighbors and local leaders, allow public access or private use of the land for the first time in three and a half decades.

Soldiers advance through fields using metal detectors to find the landmines. Another soldier follows behind them, trimming the grass to indicate what areas have been searched so far. Image courtesy Major Alejandro Perez

Today, the threat of armed land invasion is distant history. Chile is now digging up its landmines, a laborious process that has been criticized for its great slowness. In 2001 Chile ratified the Ottawa Treaty, agreeing to unearth and destroy its antipersonnel mines by 2012. Chile initially agreed to those terms, but was eventually granted an extension to 2020 due to its slow progress.

Leaders of the demining campaign blame their slow progress on the extreme conditions of the nation's Andean borderlands: Some mines were laid in terrain more than 15,000 feet above sea level, the majority are buried in meters of snow for months at a time, and most are extremely isolated, requiring the military to construct housing and facilities for its demining companies to work there.

As time goes by, the lethal toll of the landmines rises, and some in the international sphere are skeptical of Chile's sluggish advance. Abigail Hartley, chief of policy and public information for the United Nations Mine Action Service, said it has been common for countries like Chile to ask for extensions to complete mine clearing.

"But it's annoying because most of them don't need it," she said. "Chile could have gotten it done by 2012 if they really set their mind to it."

Hartley noted that Afghanistan, one of the countries most threatened by landmines, is now clearing as many as 100 square kilometers a year of minefields. Chile started out with just 23 square kilometers to clear total, and has so far cleared 10 of them. "What has Chile been doing?" asked Hartley.

Others in the international community have a more forgiving view of Chile's pace. Kerry Brinkert, director of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention's Implementation Support Unit, described Chile "as a good convention citizen—it's been steadily making progress and it's using all its own resources to do so," he said, adding that it's not fair to compare Chile with Afghanistan, which has been granted tens of millions of dollars in international aide to clear mines. "Apples and oranges," he said.

Known regions affected by landmines in Chile. This map has been flipped 90 degrees counterclockwise, so north is to the left. Image: Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor

According to Colonel Juan Mendoza, chief of Chile's National Humanitarian Demining Commission, the extension was not a product of sluggishness, but rather the difficult terrain they must navigate and their commitment to caution and safety.

First, Chile had to exhaustively seek out all information about where the landmines were. Some were obvious—minefields that had been fenced off for years, or that appeared in records left by the dictatorship. But in other cases the Demining Commission had to rely on testimony from the community. Since Chile is using all its own resources to remove the landmines, the government had to create companies of soldiers and sailors for demining, and train them on a host of recently purchased equipment for the work.

And the country has made progress: According to the Demining Commission, in the 13 years since Chile signed the treaty the country had removed 85,054 of the 181,814 mines that once lay in its borders, clearing 88 of 199 minefields. But the remaining 53 percent of the bombs must be removed in the next 6 years in order to comply with their obligations to the Ottawa Treaty.

Asked whether Chile would even meet the 2020 deadline, Col. Mendoza hesitated. "That," he said, "will be the big challenge. If we have normal circumstances we think we can get it done."

"Normal circumstances" would not include those that occurred in northern Chile's Atacama desert in 2012, when a rare and tremendous storm in the driest desert on Earth washed landmines out of the mountains and across an interstate, some exploding en route. Other minefields were inundated with mud. Mines that were once just under the surface now lie under several meters of earth, difficult to detect with standard equipment.

"We are looking for those mines centimeter by centimeter," said Mendoza. "They aren't in the places they used to be."

Chilean Private Specialist Cristian Garnica searches for missing landmines using the Slovakian-made remote-controlled mine clearing vehicle Bozena 5. Image: Katie Worth

Like Paicil, Mendoza is now undoing the work of his youth. In 1979, Mendoza was a lieutenant in Pinochet's army and he helped lay many of the minefields that must now be scoured. Mendoza is pragmatic about the theatrical curvature of his career.

"That's part of politics, right? Things change," he said. "Laying minefields was necessary in that epoch. But now we must complete the work we've committed to the international community."

Whether laying minefields was strictly necessary is debatable. Chile quarreled over borders with its three neighbors throughout the 20th century. Those disputes turned ominous in the 1970s while Chile and Argentina approached war over a handful of uninhabited islands in the Beagle Channel. Chilean military leaders believed Argentina might invade and feared Peru and Bolivia could take advantage of the chaos and follow suit, said Patricio Navia, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University.

"Pinochet was not paranoid," said Navia. "He planted landmines on the southern borders because Argentina was threatening to invade, and he planted the landmines on northern borders because if Argentina invaded, Peru and Bolivia would not be able to resist – they would attack as well."

A separate motivation likely also inspired the saber-rattling, said Nara Milanich, a Latin American history professor at Barnard College. Pinochet knew that Chileans would rally around his government if they felt their territory was threatened. "One can imagine that an expansionist, belligerent dictator could take advantage of a history of tensions to garner support for his policies," Milanich said.

In that sense, the landmines are both a symbol and a reality of the Pinochet legacy that is buried in the loam of everyday Chilean life. The general came to power in a violent 1973 coup d'état that, with support of the CIA, displaced the government of Pres. Salvador Allende, Latin America's first democratically elected socialist leader. In the weeks and years after the coup, Pinochet's regime tortured and killed thousands of dissenters and propelled 200,000 Chileans into exile.

Of course, many Latin American countries of that era were led by violent and autocratic dictators. But Pinochet's influence on his country's future was singular: Unlike the juntas of Argentina or Honduras where leadership changed multiple times, Pinochet held undisputed despotic power for 17 years, allowing him to shape policies that still play out today. 

President Augusto Pinochet (right) meets with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976, three years after Pinochet's US-backed coup d'état. Image: Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores

More time has now passed since Pinochet abdicated power than he spent in it. But, both Navia and Milanich note, even 24 years after Pinochet's rule ended, no Chilean is untouched by the tenets he baked into the country's political, economic and cultural framework.

"You can think of Chile as Luke Skywalker and Pinochet as Darth Vader. Pinochet is the father of today's Chile, and it's inevitable that Chile will always live with that legacy," Navia said.

Despite the tediousness of the work, there is never a shortage of volunteers for the Army's demining companies, said Perez. Today Chile is at peace, so its soldiers don't typically see combat. "Demining guys are the only ones doing something that you might do in war, so it gives you some kind of status in our institution," Perez said. But no one is allowed to work demining for more than three years, said Perez. "After three years a guy loses respect for the minefield. After three years is when the accidents happen."

Back when Paicil was planting these mines, no such precautions were taken. He'd been assigned to the company as a nurse but when he got bored they let him plant, even though he had no training. It was exciting work that he liked a lot. These days, his job is to stand at the edge of the windy field, waiting for an accident that so far, in his company, has not transpired. "It's a lot more boring these days than it was back when I was young," he said. "Thank God for that."