The Mountain That Eats Men: A descent into Bolivia’s dark heart

by Andrew Westoll, from the Walrus
May-June 2009
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image by Jason Rothe / www.jasonrothe.com
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Julio Morales Zambrana is furious. Our window into the mountain is about to close.

“Hurry!” yells Julio.

“Momentito,” says Jason.

“We must go now!”

“Momentito, por favor.”

We stand at the entrance to La Negra mine in Potosí, Bolivia, at the base of the infamous Cerro Rico. It is November 2007. The nation around us is once again on the verge of shearing apart.

The first 1,000 feet of La Negra are very dangerous, says Julio. The shaft is low and narrow, and there is nowhere to hide. Moments ago, a trolley filled with ore came barreling out of the mine’s mouth. The longer we delay out here, the better our chances of being annihilated inside by the next delivery.

 

Jason wrestles his camera gear, and I try to calm my nerves. I stare at the mine opening, a six-and-a-half-foot-high hole blasted into the wall, the trolley tracks disappearing into it like the rails of a ghost train. A small plaque commemorates La Negra’s reopening in 1988 after centuries of disuse. High above looms the summit of the Cerro, a cool and handsome cone of stone.

Finally, Jason is ready. We steel ourselves, duck down, and follow Julio into the darkness. Soon there is nothing but the bog of mud between the tracks, our splashing footsteps, and the serpentine hiss of the air compressor that powers the jackhammers. The only source of light for the next six hours will be the headlamps affixed to our hard hats. Though I can’t see them, the walls are so close they scrape my elbows.

Julio runs and tells us to do the same, but I am nearly a foot taller than the average Bolivian. Bent double, I go as fast as I can. Then I smash my head at a particularly low point, and my world collapses. My lamp goes out. My glasses fall from my face. I call out for Julio, but he can’t hear me. He’s howling deep into the mountain, pounding on the pipes, announcing our presence to the trolley runners, who are surely bearing down on us.

Jason is somewhere behind me, his back seizing up. Blind and shaken, I trawl the swamp at my feet with my hand. I think of the mountain opposite this one, the hill called Huakajchi. For the Inca, the spring water gushing from its slopes suggested tears.

Somehow I find my glasses. Then I bash my hard hat with my fist, and the light miraculously returns. We rush on. Ten minutes later, we find Julio resting in a small nook carved into the wall of rock, the first hiding spot in La Negra. “In through your nose, out through your mouth,” he says. At two and a half miles above sea level, every breath in Potosí feels frantically wrung from the air.

The mountain begins to rumble. A clang sings out from the air compressor pipe, and Julio’s face stretches into a smile. As the trolley careens past, chased by three young Indian men cloaked in gray dust, their cheeks packed with coca leaves, I sneak a peek down a side shaft and glimpse a familiar red figure.

“Not yet,” says Julio, reading my mind as he disappears into the darkness. “We must go deep before we visit the devil.”

 

Last week, shortly after Jason and I arrived in La Paz, the city’s streets erupted in demonstrations. Labor strikes, riots, and roadblocks swept through many of Bolivia’s eastern departments, the unrest reaching its climax when at least three protesters were killed in the city of Sucre. La Razón, the most widely read newspaper in a country all too familiar with strife, called special attention to these events by dubbing the spreading crisis Black November, a reference to the violence of Black October in 2003, when 67 people, most of them indigenous, were killed in El Alto in confrontations with the army.

At the end of 2005, in a profound break with history, Bolivia elected its first fully indigenous president. Evo Morales is an Aymara Indian, a former bricklayer, a trumpet player, a cocalero (a coca leaf grower), and a darling of the radical left. He won an absolute majority, securing over half the vote, and immediately set to work on a mandate to “refound” the Bolivian Republic after years of corrupt neoliberal leadership.

Morales—along with his political hero, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela—fast became a figurehead of the populist New Left wave sweeping across a politically reinvigorated South America. His stated goal is to empower the nation’s historically oppressed Indian majority. His platform promised to redistribute land to poor campesinos, assist coca growers in their struggle against a mendacious war on drugs, reject U.S.-backed free trade policies, nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas industry (which he did in 2006), and convoke a constit­uent assembly to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution.

It was this promise of a new constitution—approved in January 2009 and the country’s 17th in under two centuries—that led to the violence in La Paz.

The morning after the killings in Sucre, Jason and I saw hundreds of Aymaran women wearing long black braids, pleated pollera skirts, and black bowler hats scurrying down Avenida 16 de Julio toward the Plaza del Estudiante in La Paz. Firecracker blasts echoed off the walls of the surrounding Choqueyapu canyon, and we felt the will of Bolivia stir. As thousands of miners and their campesino brethren marched up Avenida Villazon to join the women—arms linked, chanting slogans of solidarity, the imposing visage of Mount Illimani behind them—we realized that the mines of the Cerro Rico might have something extremely pressing to say about the country and its perpetually tenuous future. The next night, we boarded an overnight bus bound for Potosí.

 

“Now pay attention,” says Julio. “we are late, so I explain just once.” We crouch, wheezing and coughing and spitting up phlegm, on the lip of a vertical shaft. An antique ladder of rotting wood drops down into the three-foot-wide hole, as does a manual winch cable.

Above, at what would normally be shoulder level, a vein of zinc runs along the ceiling, a glimmering trail crisscrossed by supporting timbers and studded with luminous beauty marks. “The mountain is like my hand,” says our guide. “Its veins are my veins.”

By the mid-1800s, miners were sweeping the last breath of silver from these tunnels with brooms, turning their attention to secondary minerals such as zinc and tin. After the Bolivian Revolution in 1952, the government nationalized the tin mines. Then, in October 1985, global prices collapsed and the mine closed, leaving 23,000 unemployed. The face of Potosí became even more worn as the young fled and older miners, many of whom had spent their entire lives working the Cerro, remained in its shadow.

As necessity—or, more accurately, poverty—is the mother of invention, the veterans quickly banded together to form mining cooperatives. The state, still the legal owner of the Cerro, agreed to lease concessions, and the miners returned to the mountain as their own bosses. Today more than 15,000 destitute mestizo, Quechua, and Aymara Indians scrape a living from the sparse deposits of lead, zinc, and tin still embedded in the Cerro’s warren of exhausted halls. Most are members of one of several dozen co-ops; collectively, they operate more than 300 active mines, many of which date back to the Spanish conquest.

We begin our descent. Visceral images of disaster flood my mind as I pick my way down the rickety ladder. Every year, dozens of miners are crushed, suffocated, or blown to pieces inside the Cerro. Cave-ins occur almost weekly, and lethal pockets of carbon monoxide and sulfurous gases lurk behind every wall. Winches fail, cables snap, trolleys run out of control, blasting caps are fumbled to the ground—and, yes, old ladders routinely snap.

On the next level down, we turn acrobatics through the gloom, across the shaky, mud-slick timbers that lie between us and a 30-foot plummet. As we go deeper, the walls begin to play tricks, supporting me until I lose my footing, then backing off and leaving me dangling, scrambling for purchase. At level three, crawling on hands and knees toward the next ladder, I become lodged in a narrow section. For a short, terrifying moment, I am trapped. I can’t move my arms or draw a proper breath. I curse the backpack that, ludicrously, I hadn’t thought to remove. The more I struggle, the more wedged I become.

Julio pokes his head up from the vertical shaft just ahead. “No force,” he says into the dark. “No muscle.” I stop wriggling, close my eyes, try to relax into the mountain. My breath reluctantly returns. I slither forward cautiously, reverently. Somehow my arms come free, and I’m able to pull myself through. My panic subsides. The Cerro has released me.

 

Four hundred years ago, the Cerro Rico, or “rich hill” of Potosí, was the richest silver mine in the world. At a time when all of Latin America was about to be transformed into one big mine—a bottomless bank account for the royals of Europe—the extraordinary wealth of the Cerro became the chief economic engine for the Spanish conquest, and arguably the first real swig of mother’s milk for young Western capitalism.

Legend has it that the Inca knew about the riches lying beneath the Cerro. According to Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, an Inca named Huayna Capaj led a team of treasure seekers to its summit long before the Spanish arrived. As they began to dig, though, a fearsome voice thundered from the heavens. “This is not for you,” it warned. “God is keeping these riches for those who come from afar.” The Inca fled, terrified, but not before dubbing the mountain Potojsi, Quechua for “to thunder, burst, explode.”

In 1545, during the early days of the conquest, the prophecy of the mountain came true. An unlucky Indian named Huallpa spent a shivering night on the Cerro after passing the day in pursuit of an escaped llama. By the light of his campfire, he glimpsed a huge vein of pure silver glittering on the mountain’s surface. Word spread quickly, and, as Galeano puts it, “the Spanish avalanche was unleashed.”

The Spaniards opened the mine that same year. Within three decades, Potosí had grown more affluent than Paris or London, making it the New World’s first boomtown. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, named Potosí an Imperial City, and upon its shield were inscribed the lines “I am rich Potosí, treasure of the world, king of the mountains, envy of kings.” Popular theory holds that the old mark of the Potosí mint (the letters ptsi superimposed on one another) was the precursor of the modern dollar sign.

The true amount of silver extracted from the Cerro is impossible to measure, but Bolivians often claim that enough was chiseled from the mountain to build a shimmering bridge from the summit all the way to Madrid. In Spain, even today, if something is “worth a Potosí,” it is worth a fortune. But this astonishing wealth came at an awful cost: Untold numbers of indigenous workers perished inside the mines after living lives of incomparable torment.

 

On the fourth level of La Negra, we find Julio at a fork in the shaft, perched on a pile of blasted stone. He is laughing with three edgy young Quechuans. This is the drilling team. Their mandate: open a set of 12 holes in the wall around the corner. These will later be packed with dynamite. The men are clothed, as are we, in the ubiquitous uniform of the Cerro Rico miner: hooded full-body overalls, black rubber boots, hard hat, headlamp, and an overcoat of ghostly gray dust. They are following a vein of zinc to the east.

One of the men wears an additional piece of equipment over his nose and mouth: an old-school half-face filter mask. At his feet lies a hulking mass of rusted machinery, an ancient pneumatic jackhammer with a chisel the width of my wrist affixed to its end.

“This man is expert driller,” says Julio.

“How old?” I ask.

“Twenty-two.”

The driller mumbles through his mask in Quechua, and Julio translates.

“He says his mask is broken, but he can’t afford a new one.”

Trolley runners may get lucky and outrun cave-ins, and explosives experts hold their fortunes in their own hands, but the average life expectancy for drillers is barely more than 10 years from the day they start. The leading cause of death in the mines is not accidents or gas leaks but mal de mina: miner’s sickness, or silicosis of the lungs. The disease is caused by inhalation of the crystalline silica dust thrown up by the drills.

Death by silicosis is a slow, agonizing demise. The suffering miner literally loses his breath as the alveoli of his lungs become inflamed and overgrown with fibrous tissue. Symptoms progress from shortness of breath, fever, and weakness to bluish skin, cracked fingernails, dramatic weight loss, respiratory infection, and heart failure. A good mask with a particulate filter costs upwards of $50, two and a half times the average miner’s take-home pay for a very good week.

The air compressor pipe suddenly hisses to life, and the miners leap from their seats. The driller hefts his jackhammer, adjusts his useless mask, and disappears into the dark. As we crouch around the corner, my insides shudder, my face quivers, and I can feel the vibrations in my teeth. I touch the wall, and the concussions rattle up my arm and throttle my throat. Julio yells something, but I can’t make it out, so he grabs my shoulder and motions for me to retreat. Just then, an otherworldly cloud rushes around the corner and swallows us.

We abandon the drillers and stumble back the way we came, choking and coughing and trying to hold our breath. “Tourists don’t come down here,” says Julio as he leads us through a labyrinth of shattered hallways. “If I bring them, they start to cry.”

 

Soon we find another group of men. They sit on mounds of crushed stone surrounded by the tools of the Bolivian miner: pickaxes, shovels, coils of white safety fuse, piles of silver blasting caps, a few threadbare rice sacks, and countless sticks of dynamite.

“Refresco, refresco,” says one of the miners, and I obediently retrieve bottles of singani (muscatel grape liquor), soda pop, and puro (rubbing alcohol) from my backpack. Puro is 192 proof. Cut with soda, it is the macho drink of choice inside the Cerro Rico. Friday is a day of celebration in the mountain. Tomorrow the miners will sell their meager hauls of zinc and tin to the co-op in return for their meager wage.

I watch the men perform their delicate work by the light of their headlamps. One of them sieves a pinkish sand from the rice sacks while his partner packs the resulting powder into paper tubes. These cartridges of explosive ammonium nitrate will be set alongside the dynamite. Two other miners wrestle with coils of safety fuse, snipping off an arm’s length at a time and affixing a blasting cap to one end. Each flick of their wrists has the potential to usher us all to oblivion. The blasting caps are live; if one falls and contacts stone just so, we’ll be blown to smithereens.

This doesn’t stop the boozing. On the contrary, now that we’ve arrived, the men are working one-handed, fuses and caps in one hand, bottles in the other. Before each sip, they sprinkle a few drops of liquor on the ground as an offering to Pachamama. Finally, the booze makes its way to me. I grab it with my left hand, and Julio explodes. “Right hand!” he yells, alerting me to a less tangible danger. Andean superstition holds that it is very bad luck to drink alcohol with the left hand.

A new anxiety soon sets in. As I strip the stems of coca leaves with my teeth and chew the energizing greens, I stare at the man sifting ammonium nitrate. His face has a strange smoothness to it, a fleshiness in the cheeks. Then it hits me: This miner is not a man. He is a boy, no older than 12.

UNICEF estimates that 10 percent of all miners in Bolivia are children. They are drawn to the dark from across the country and are often their families’ sole breadwinners. This boy’s father died a few months ago, so he quit school and moved to Potosí with his mother and two sisters to find work.

The air becomes unnervingly gray; the dust from the drilling has found us. As we take our leave, I realize that the two youngest miners aren’t wearing masks. “When you are young, you think you are king of the world,” says Julio. “You don’t think of the future.” Even if this little boy becomes a relatively well paid driller, I realize, he’ll probably be dead by the time he’s 22.

 

We emerge from the depths of level four, half drunk and shaking with exhaustion. We pass toppled trolleys, strewn dust masks, black sacks heavy with ore, men with the gleam of the berserk in their eyes. The miners fall in line behind us, drawn by the promise of more puro and, I soon learn, a tremendous sense of duty. At the end of a shift on a Friday afternoon, the climb to level one of La Negra has the air of a pilgrimage.

I begin to recognize our surroundings: the parallel shimmer of the trolley tracks, the swamp at my feet. But before we reach the respite of the mine’s mouth, Julio leads us down a short side shaft, the one I’d peered down six hours earlier.

At the end of the cul-de-sac looms a fearsome figure, a six-and-a-half-foot-high clay statue of a seated man coated in chipped red paint. He has a shaggy woolen beard, a cut physique, curved black horns, and a thick, erect phallus. Countless cigarettes spill from his mouth, colorful ribbons drape his shoulders, and empty booze bottles and piles of coca leaf scatter his lap. This is the Tío. Uncle. The devilish landlord of the Cerro Rico.

We sit before the Tío, and the miners speak a few reverent words in Quechua. Then the puro begins its rounds. Before each sip, we stand and sprinkle a few drops onto the statue with our right hands. In no time, we are profoundly drunk. Julio smiles sloppily, gesturing at the stone walls. “This is the world of darkness. This is the world of darkness! And who is living here? The Tío, the devil.”

Every mine in the Cerro has at least one statue of the Tío, a pagan custom that dates back to the conquest. By the light of day, most miners are pious Roman Catholics, but in the dark of the mountain they become devout devil worshippers. At the end of each week, they visit the Tío to make offerings of coca, liquor, and cigarettes. If a miner is feeling especially hard done by, he might bury a llama fetus—or, if local legend is to be believed, an unborn human one—at the Tío’s foot. “If the miners don’t want to have injuries, they must offer presents,” says Julio.

Andean spirituality holds that the rich veins of minerals in the Cerro are the result of sexual relations between the Tío and Pachamama—hence the massive phallus. Every February, during the annual miners’ carnival, a man dressed as the Tío dances down from the mountain and joins the drunken mobs on the streets of Potosí, hunting the souls of earthbound sinners. “If we don’t give, the Tío will be hungry,” says Julio, leaning close, his eyes glazed with booze. “Hungry means he wants to eat something. But what will he eat?”

I shrug.

“Bodies,” he says. “Understand?”

I nod, and Julio leans closer.

“They say the miners are eating the mountain,” he says, flicking a few drops of puro up onto the Tío’s knee before drinking deeply. “But the mountain is eating the men.” For the next hour, inebriated discussions veer from the laughably sexual to the tragic, the men posturing as Casanovas in one breath, then relinquishing their fortunes to the Tío in the next. More miners join us, dusty phantoms at shift’s end. We drink the puro down and start in on the singani. A distant explosion rumbles through the shaft—the dynamite we saw earlier, packed and blown. One of the men, his face tinged blue from silicosis, motions for me to return my hard hat to my head.

Dig down to the heart of Bolivian rebellion, and you will find a trove of natural resources. Whether it’s silver, gold, zinc, copper, water, land, gas, or tin, it is the wealth beneath the soil, and sometimes the soil itself, that has been the protagonist here ever since the Spanish arrived. The mines of Potosí (silver), the Bolivian Revolution in 1952 (land and tin), the Cochabamba water war of 2000 (municipal water), the deadly gas war of 2003 (natural gas)—control over resources, the money and power that arises from their extraction, has been the real social and political organizing force here ever since Huallpa lit his feeble campfire.

Bolivia’s fractured history lies beyond the grasp of a single journey into one infamous mountain. But sitting deep inside the Cerro Rico, where the cleaving of Bolivia and the pillaging of a continent began, it is hard not to feel as though I’m in a living museum, where past and present are indistinguishable, and the future threatens to join them in the dark.

 

Andrew Westoll (right) is the author of The Riverbones, a travel memoir set deep inside the jungles of Suriname. He lives in Toronto and online at www.andrewwestoll.com. Jason Rothe is a multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in the Walrus, Explore, and the Globe and Mail. He can be found online at www.jasonrothe.com. This essay is an adapted excerpt from the Walrus(Jan.-Feb. 2009), a Canadian general interest magazine with international scope and a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for best writing; www.walrus magazine.com.


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