By GLENN GARVIN
Herald Staff Writer
OCOTAL, Nicaragua -- The German shepherd sniffed the air delicately, paused,
then sniffed again. Finally he sat, the signal that a hidden killer lay nearby. But
instead of reaching for their rifles, the Nicaraguan soldiers beamed cheerful smiles.
``We've only been working with these dogs for a month, and we haven't gotten
everything ironed out yet,'' said Maj. Manuel Ignacio Baldizon. ``But we're
confident they're going to be a big help in getting rid of these land mines.''
Like vengeful ghosts from Central America's past, land mines left over
wars of the 1980s regularly reappear to claim new victims. Nicaragua's four new
mine-sniffing dogs are part of a renewed effort to attack the problem, which will
be discussed at a hemisphere-wide meeting in Mexico City today and Tuesday.
``With the end of the Cold War, old land mines have become the focus of
attention all over the world, and recently people have been talking about Bosnia
and Cambodia a lot more,'' said Jody Williams, the U.S. activist whose worldwide
campaign against mines won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. ``But we want to make
sure that Central America gets as much attention as anywhere else.''
Williams toured Nicaragua and Honduras for four days last week as part
delegation from the Organization of American States that was drumming up
support for a more vigorous clean-up campaign in Central America's mine fields.
During the Mexico City meeting, the OAS will hit up donor nations for an
million over the next two years to broaden anti-mining efforts.
The major part of that money will be spent on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border,
where about 70,000 mines are believed to be buried. The border was the site of
intense combat during the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980s, when U.S.-backed
contra rebels were trying to overthrow the country's Marxist Sandinista regime.
The contras, who maintained base camps just across the border in Honduras,
land mines to defend themselves against Sandinista attacks. Meanwhile, the
Sandinistas heavily mined infiltration routes into Nicaragua to try to keep the
Although the OAS and the Nicaraguan army have detected and deactivated
32,000 mines over the past four years, no one believes the job is anywhere near
completion. And the clean-up campaign was dealt a serious blow by Hurricane
The storm's heavy rains and high floodwaters sent countless land mines
down from remote hillsides into farming areas that had already been cleaned up,
and even into towns. Four displaced mines have exploded in Nicaragua since the
hurricane, killing two people and wounding four others.
Faced with reclearing hundreds of square miles of territory that had already
declared mine-free, the Nicaraguan army asked for help. It arrived last month in
the form of four U.S.-trained dogs that can sniff out explosives up to a foot deep in
Even though they can work only about three hours a day before tiring --
at all when it's windy -- the dogs are much more efficient than soldiers using metal
``Metal detectors have an enormous error rate,'' said Maj. Gen. John C.
Thompson, the U.S. Army officer who chairs the Inter-American Defense Board.
``To find 4,000 mines, you might detect 50,000 pieces of metal.
``Every time you've got to stop and go through all the procedures as if
found a real land mine, and then it turns out to be a nail. But the dogs won't pay
any attention to a nail.''
There's another bonus in using the dogs here: They can find the homemade,
wood-encased land mines that the contra rebels sometimes used, which evade
metal detectors altogether.
Aside from calls for more help for Central America's mining cleanup, today's
meeting in Mexico City is likely to produce new pressure on the United States to
sign an international treaty banning the use of anti-personnel mines.
Although more than 100 countries have signed the treaty, which goes into
April 1, the United States has refused unless it allows for two exceptions: using
anti-personnel mines to protect anti-tank mines, and using them along the border
between North and South Korea.
``We do want to'' sign the treaty, James Schear, deputy assistant secretary
defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance, said in a telephone
interview. ``We feel that the problem that it addresses, the indiscriminate use of
land mines, is genuine.''
But, Schear said, anti-tank mines are too easy for enemy forces to deactivate
unless they are surrounded by anti-personnel mines. And the Korean peninsula, he
added, poses a unique problem.
North Korean military doctrine calls for mass human wave attacks that could
quickly overwhelm conventional defenses, he said, and enable communist troops
to capture Seoul, just 25 miles or so from the border.
Though the United States, Russia, China and several other nations that
have refused to sign the treaty, Nicaragua has -- even though it will require the
country to destroy a stockpile of 100,000.
Defense Minister Pedro Joaquin Chamorro said the destruction will begin
March, even before the treaty goes into effect. ``I'll be frank with you,'' he said.
``We want to be the first to comply, to set an example, because we need
donations to clean the country of mines. And the time to get donations is when
there's a lot of attention on the process, a lot of sympathy.''
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald