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Country Reports
GUATEMALA, Landmine Monitor Report 1999


Mine Ban Policy

Guatemala signed the Mine Ban Treaty on 3 December 1997. The Guatemalan Congress ratified the treaty less than three weeks later in a vote that was published in Guatemala’s official register on 23 December 1998. On 22 February 1999, Guatemala’s Ambassador, Alfonso Quinones, said “We are finalizing the [ratification] process now.”[1] Guatemalan non-governmental organizations affiliated to the ICBL urged the government to ratify quickly.[2] On 26 March 1999, Guatemala deposited its instrument of ratification.

Guatemala was an early supporter of a mine ban. In September 1996, it joined with other Central American nations in declaring the region a mine free zone in a joint statement signed by each nation’s foreign minister, committing to no production, trade, or use of antipersonnel mines. During the Ottawa Process, Guatemala endorsed the pro-ban treaty June 1997 Brussels Declaration, and was a full participant in the Oslo negotiations in September. Guatemala also voted in favor of the pro-ban U.N. General Assembly resolutions in 1996 and 1997, as well as the pro-ban resolutions of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Guatemala also passed domestic legislation to ban landmines as early as 1996 with Decree Number 106-97 prohibiting the production, purchase, sale, importation, exportation, transit, use or possession of antipersonnel landmines or of explosive artifacts or of their composite parts. It is believed that this law now serves as the implementing legislation for the Mine Ban Treaty.

Guatemala is a party to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) and its original Protocol II on landmines, though it has not yet ratified the 1996 amended Protocol II. Guatemala is not a member of the Conference on Disarmament.

Production, Transfer, Stockpiling and Use

The government of Guatemala states that it did not use landmines during its long-running internal war, and there is no concrete evidence to the contrary. Some local military commanders, however, did occasionally deploy improvised explosive devices, often involving hand grenades set to trip wires, for perimeter defense around their bases.[3] The government also states that it has not produced or imported antipersonnel mines, and has no stockpile.[4]

The guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) made relatively limited use of crude, homemade mines and improvised explosive devices during the war. The guerrillas used them for perimeter defense of their main base camps. One of the areas most heavily-mined areas by the URNG was the Tajamulco volcano in San Marcos, as it was the site of the rebels’ clandestine radio station. In these areas, the URNG produced their own landmines out of locally available materials, including plastic tubing, potassium nitrate and sulphur (to make gunpowder) and flashlight batteries. Most of these mines were detonated by the pressure from above, though some were set as booby-traps. The URNG also occasionally booby-trapped hand grenades. The URNG also frequently used homemade directional mines, which function similar to Claymore mines, as a close-range offensive weapon against Guatemalan army troops.[5]

No one in Guatemala is known to have either made or used mines since the war ended in 1996.

Landmine Problem

Estimates vary as to the extent of both the antipersonnel landmines and unexploded ordnance that still threaten Guatemala. Before the war ended in 1996, the Guatemalan military claimed that the URNG guerrillas had deployed 35,000 landmines.[6] Today, Guatemalan Army General Otto Perez Molina, who represented the Guatemalan military in the peace negotiations with the guerrillas that ended the war, admits that figure was grossly exaggerated.[7] General Perez, who now represents the Guatemalan military on the Inter-American Defense Board of the Organization of American States, says that today probably only hundreds, not thousands, of landmines still pose a threat in Guatemala. Indeed the UNHCR and the ICRC both estimate that before the end of the war, in the mid-1990s, there were no more than 1,500 landmines in Guatemala.[8]

The mines were laid in many regions including the Playa Grande region of Alta Verapaz province along with the bordering region of Ixcan in Quiche province.[9] Other mined areas include the northern Peten province along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, the Tajamulco volcano in San Marcos province as well as on the Atitlan volancos in Solola province. Mines were also used near San Mateo in Huehuetenango province, as well as in mountainous regions of Quetzaltenango, Chimaltenango and Escuintla provinces.[10]

Unexploded ordnance remains a far greater problem than landmines have ever been in Guatemala. The government’s Executive Coordinating Unit estimates that there are between 5,000 and 8,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance in Guatemala,[11] in the same regions as above. An unknown amount of land remains affected by unexploded ordnance.

Mine Awareness and Clearance

Guatemala began to try and address its landmines problem as early as 1992, when the Demining Committee of the Inter-American Defense Board chief of staff visited Guatemala. Plans were drawn for a mine clearance process to be carried out in three stages by the Guatemalan military over a two-year period at an estimated cost of U.S.$4.2 million. But the plan was never implemented due to the ongoing civil war.[12]

Even before Guatemala began mine clearance, it initiated a program of mine and unexploded ordnance education. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was facilitating the repatriation of war refugees from Mexico back to Guatemala, embarked on a landmine and unexploded ordnance awareness program modeled partly upon the highly successful campaign led by another U.N. organization, UNICEF, shortly before in El Salvador. The program trained Guatemalan civilians among the repatriating community in mine detection and awareness. The UNHCR was assisted by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the German Project Coordination for Reparation of War Damages, in a program financed first by the European Union and then by Switzerland. The program spent U.S.$700,000 to assess the initial problem and to train a team of 18 selected refugees as landmine detection awareness leaders for the repatriating community.[13]

The trained team was later integrated into the Volunteer Firefighter Corps. The Volunteer Firefighter Corps has since proven essential to the country’s demining and unexploded ordnance clearing process, as the Corps enjoys widespread confidence among Guatemala’s civilian population. Their role in Guatemala stands as a model for civil society involvement in demining in other nations.

In 1995, Decree Number 60-95 established a national demining coordinating commission which included the President of the Commission of Legislative Studies for Peace, an agency of the Guatemalan congress. The commission was also comprised of representatives of the Volunteer Fireman’s Corps, the National Commission for the Attention of Repatriation, Refugees and Displaced Persons, along with a private German firm, Project Coordinator for Overcoming War Damages. The law also provided $200,000 to support the ongoing work of the Volunteer Firefighter Corps.[14]

Guatemala’s three-decade long civil war finally ended in December 1996. As part of its obligations under the peace accord, URNG transferred its largest minefield to the United Nations Mission for Guatemala, which monitored the implementation of the peace accords. The area was cleared by a U.N. military contingent in April 1997. Soon Guatemala also passed Decree 46-97, which established the Executive Coordinating Unit. In November 1997, the unit prepared a “National Plan for Demining and the Destruction of Unexploded Ordnance.” It is under the auspices of the above legislation and plan, that the Inter-American Defense Board is now assisting Guatemala with its demining and unexploded ordnance clearing efforts.

The Inter-American Defense Board is helping with demining and related efforts in Guatemala as well as in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The effort is being supported by donor nations including Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, while military personnel are being provided by member states of the Organization of American States including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, the United States and Venezuela. The progam was expanded from working only in Honduras in 1995 to working as well in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica by 1998. Fifteen demining platoons, each comprised of approximately 25 deminers, are involved in the regional operation, whose total annual budget in 1998 was U.S.$3 million.[15]

The Inter-American Defense Board only began training Guatemalan personnel in demining efforts in June 1998 and actual clearance operations in Guatemala only began in December 1998. Hurricane Mitch, which swept Central America’s Atlantic Coast in November 1998, has not delayed demining and related activities in Guatemala.[16] In the first month of operation, the IADB’s demining team detected and destroyed ten antipersonnel landmines, clearing twenty-four square meters of land.[17]

Survivor Assistance

Guatemala has yet to make any comprehensive effort to treat war wounded. Though the number of casualties from landmines and other war-related artefacts are far lower in Guatemala than, for example, in neighboring El Salvador, the total number of wounded from Guatemala’s civil war remains unknown. It appears that little or no treatment is currently available in Guatemala for prosthetics fitting, rehabilitation and workplace reincorporation. Partly because the overall need for such programs is considered to be far less in Guatemala than in other Central American nations, the Pan-American Health Organization is not undertaking such efforts in Guatemala.


[1]LM Researcher interview with the Guatemalan Ambassador to the Organization of American States, Alfonso Quinones, Washington, D.C., 22 February 1999.

[2] In March 1999 IEPADES, a local NGO, reported that a meeting between IEPADES and the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President’s General Secretariat, indicated that ratification would occur very shortly. Email Correspondence from Carmen Rosa de Leon, IEPADES, with Liz Bernstein, ICBL Co-ordinator, 22 March 1999.

[3] Antipersonnel Mines in Central America: Conflict and post-conflict, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, January 1996, p. 18.

[4] Interview with General Otto Perez Molina, the Guatemalan military’s representative to the Inter-American Defense Board of the Organization of American States, Washington, D.C., 19 February 1999.

[5] Antipersonnel Mines in Central America: Conflict and post-conflict, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, January 1996, p. 18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Interview with General Otto Perez Molina, 19 February 1999.

[8] UNHCR estimated that there were 1,000 to 1,500 landmines in Guatemala in the mid-1990s, according to the United Nations landmine country report on Guatemala. See http://www.un.org/Depts/landmine/country. The ICRC reported in 1996 that “the total number of inspected mines is probably under 1,500,” according to Antipersonnel Mines in Central America, p. 19.

[9] United Nations landmine country report for Guatemala, 3 March 1997.

[10] Antipersonnel Mines in Central America, p. 18-19.

[11] Republic of Guatemala, Legislative Commission for Peace Studies, Executive Coordination Unit, “National Plan for Demining and the Destruction of Unexploded Ordnance,” November 1997.

[12] Antipersonnel Mines in Central America, p. 21.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Antipersonnel Mines in Central America, p. 22. The title of the decree is “Reducing the Risks to Inhabitants of Zones Affected by Armed Conflict through the Identification and Deactivation of Mines and other Explosive Artefacts.”

[15] Inter-American Defense Board, “Demining Assistance Program in Central America,” August 1998.

[16] Organizacion de Estados Americanos, Junta Interamericana de Defensa, “El Programa de Asistencia al Desminado en Centroamerica,” 4 February 1999.

[17] Ibid.