EL RETIRO, Colombia -- Crouched on all fours and sweating beneath his Kevlar jacket, Edwin Ramírez slowly cleared dirt from around the fist-sized red tube buried in the ground.
There was no reason for Ramírez to be afraid: This land mine was a training dummy. But in a few months, Ramírez 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 past 22 years, land mines 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 middle 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 Ramírez 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 Medellín. By year’s end, the organization hopes to have 200 people trained as map makers, 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 land-mine contamination, but most of the recruits have seen the damage the explosives do firsthand.
Gloria Nancy Vasquez, 23, was riding a mule in 2005 near her town of Argelia when it stepped on a land mine. The blast killed the mule and left Vasquez partially blind and deaf on her left side. She has had multiple skin grafts on her arm and leg.
Vasquez said the past two months of training have forced her to overcome her fear of land mines, and she’s looking forward to helping other affected villages.
“To be able to survey an area and then hand it back to the community clean [of landmines] would make me very proud,” she said, as she sat beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary. “I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone.”
Civilian demining efforts are common in other parts of the world (Halo works in 13 countries), but it has taken some getting used to here.
Last year, the attorney general’s office warned the government against allowing civilian operators, saying the human and legal risks were too high.
“Humanitarian demining by civilians in the middle of the conflict could... expose them to exceptional risks,” the attorney general’s office wrote. Instead, the office recommended reinforcing the army’s bomb squad.
But those concerns were ultimately assuaged, and the government is in negotiations with four civilian demining organizations — Halo, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, Indra-Atex and Ronco — and hopes to put them to work within months.