ANGELOPOLIS, COLOMBIA — AS he enters the gaping mouth of the tunnel, 12-year-old Luis Alberto Ardila glances up at the wooden cross above the hole and prays it won't be the last time he sees it.
He wades through the mud and water with a candle in his mouth, leaving his hands free to grab at the crumbling walls in case he loses his footing. The only sound he hears is a slow hammering from inside the mine. About 500 boys under 18 work in Colombia's coal mines, 140 of them in Angelopolis and nearby Amaga.
But a recently started program, Ciudad Don Bosco, is offering the youngsters of Angelopolis a glimmer of hope and is expected to provide an alternative to the many boys who are often the sole breadwinners for their families.
As Luis Alberto ventures deeper into the mine in western Colombia's Antioquia state, he finally arrives into the almost-three-foot-high cave, where Conrado Bonilla, a boy who looks about 14, sits with his head bent hacking at the coal wall.
Sweat pouring from his brow, carving rivers in the coal covering his young face, Conrado fills a sack. Luis Alberto breathing heavily, hauls the 136-pound weight onto his wet back.
''The worst thing is carrying the sacks because you really suffer,'' says 16-year-old Etor Ardila, another miner, looking at his little brother, Luis Alberto, grimacing as he unloads the coal.
Unlike the technical mines in northern Colombia, the 150 family mines in Antioquia use rudimentary mining methods. Miners begin work at 4 or 5 in the morning and finish at around noon, earning 4,000 pesos ($4.50) a day.
Jorge, an eight-year-old ragamuffin, with freckles and tousled hair, works as a garitero. Each day he brings the miners their breakfast, earning himself a dollar.
''This is how it all begins,'' says Cielo Toro, coordinator of Ciudad Don Bosco, the government-backed social center in Angelopolis which is working to improve the lives of the child miners.
''A child starts as a garitero, and when he's at the mine begins to help load coal into sacks. From there he enters the mouth of the mine and helps carry sacks out.'' Before long he is totally involved in coal mining.
Most are sent in by their parents despite the danger of mine walls collapsing and gas leaks. Working in the damp, dark, heat often affects the young boys' health.
''The boys' families all live in extreme poverty, so everyone has to work,'' explains Jaime Zuluaga, director of Ciudad Don Bosco.
''There's no other work here apart from digging for coal,'' says Hernando Enau, an older man who has been working in the mines since he was eight. Although much of the surrounding land is rich for cultivation and ranching, it is owned by a few wealthy land owners and the areas where the miners live are unfertile.
''There are also cultural reasons too, '' says Beatriz Cespedes, who runs UNICEF programs to stop child labor in Colombia. ''It's very important to fathers that their sons learn to work from a young age, so they learn to be men.''
Few of the child miners attend school. Fifteen-year-old Nelson Vanegas lies on his bed after 10 hours work in a nearby mine, too tired to move. His father and brothers are all miners, who never finished elementary school. Nelson doesn't have the energy to go.
Some child miners are the breadwinners in their family. ''Conrado has to work to feed five people,'' says his elderly father, Emilio Bonilla. ''It really weighs on our minds, but what else can we do? I'm too ill to work.''
Programs like Ciudad Don Bosco offer the boys hope.
Social workers first visited the mines in October and discovered that 85 percent of child miners had not finished elementary school and 35 percent were illiterate. The center offered to help with the boys' education, heath, and nutrition. Now 70 children between 10 and 17 have joined the program, and 50 of them have started to attend school, with additional tutoring from the center.
''When we first came to the area, the boys looked very sad and timid,'' says Mr. Toro the coordinator. Now they come running into the center and eagerly take part in the center's activities. The program hopes to offer the boys and their communities other job possibilities next year by opening workshops, which will train them in other vocations, such as electronics and carpentry.
State-owned coal company Ecocarbon also plans to establish a project in Angelopolis similar to one it funds jointly with UNICEF in Topaga, northeast of Bogota, the capital.
There around 50 children, who used to be miners, attend a workshop where they make overalls and masks for local coal miners, and coal sculptures to sell to tourists.