EL RETIRO, Colombia -- Crouched on all fours and sweating beneath his Kevlar jacket, Edwin Ramirez slowly cleared dirt from around the fist-size red tube buried in the ground.
There was no reason for Ramirez to fear: this landmine was a training dummy. But in a few months, Ramirez will be tracking down the real thing as part of the hemisphere's first civilian demining program.
Colombia's 48-year civil conflict has made this Andean nation one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world. Last year, 75 people were killed and 404 were injured by mines -- putting it just behind Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of victims. In the last 22 years, landmines have claimed 10,160 victims here.
Even while the government and the nation's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are in the midst of peace talks in Havana, there are clear signs that new mines, known here as quiebra patas, or foot breakers, are being laid down faster than the military can find them.
That's why the country is opening its doors to civilian demining organizations.
"Traditionally, demining is something in Latin America that has been done by the military and this is a brand new concept for the region," said Grant Salisbury, program manager for the Halo Trust, the U.K.-based organization that began training Ramirez and others for the job. "There is a crying need, particularly in Colombia, for humanitarian civilian mine action."
Halo's first group of 13 recruits is training at an abandoned schoolhouse about an hour outside of Medellin. By year's end, the organization hopes to have 200 people trained as mapmakers, deminers and paramedics. While the salary hasn't been set, workers are expected to make better than minimum wage, which is about $331 a month.
The training site was chosen precisely because it has no history of landmine contamination, but most of the recruits have seen the damage the explosives do first hand.
Gloria Nancy Vasquez, 23, was riding a mule in 2005 near her town of Argelia when it stepped on a landmine. The blast killed the mule and left Vasquez partly blind and deaf on her left side. She's had multiple skin grafts on her arm and leg.
Vasquez said the last two months of training have forced her to overcome her fear of landmines, and she's looking forward to helping other affected villages.