Hanging Out with Spain's Angry Bazooka Miners
For over a month now, the miners based in the northern Spanish province of Asturias have been on a strike that has frequently erupted into armed fighting between themselves and police. The reason behind the strike? The new conservative Spanish government has gradually been trying to policy their livelihoods out of existence. They've slashed mining subsidies knowing that without that funding, the mines will have to close. They also reneged on a deal made to help out the miners whose jobs they're taking away. Since the men who work in the mines know no other way of supporting their families, they've not taken this well.
So it was that I came to spend Wednesday, the 4th of July scurrying around as the few hundred miners left at the Soton mine in Asturias (in the 90s, a few thousand worked these pits) used burning barricades and homemade rocket launchers to fend off the riot police sent up into the mountains to deal with this hardcore of renegade pitmen.
The miners have responded to the government's decision to destroy their lives by blockading the roads and rail lines that run south through the centre of Asturias towards the capital, Madrid. It's a battle that has played out on loop for over a month and it's strange one, because while the miners are fighting for their futures, to the authorities it's essentially a traffic dispute (albeit one that's already cost one policeman one of his eyes).
There's a temptation to compare the clashes to our own miners' strikes, but the reality's very different. The battles may be pitched, but as rowdy as Arthur Scargill's mob got back in the 80s, they never attacked the police or treacherous scabs with fireworks, slingshots and rocket launchers they'd fashioned from bits of old pipe.
The miners have a few different varieties of bazooka – the strongest ones use an explosive charge to fire out these weird, massive golf balls, but only at vehicles. If they fired them directly at cops, they'd soon be up in court on murder charges. Despite the language barrier, I learned that if the situation deteriorates further, the miners may consider turning their more powerful weapons directly on the police. They hope very much that they don't arrive at that last resort.
On Tuesday, I was talking to some of the miners and their families. Many were saying that they'd strike for as long as they have to, when a barricade was announced for the next day at the Soton Mine in Carrocera. In Asturias, barricades are an almost everyday occurence, but they're not usually planned in advance. It's become imperative to surprise the police recently, as the miners suspect they've been bugging their phones and sending undercover cops into meetings and protests to gather information.
I was told to be ready outside my hotel at 4.20AM on Wednesday, where I was picked up by my guides from the previous day. Neither spoke any English and my translator was busy – instant added fun. Next thing I knew, I was getting driven to a car park near the mine and told to switch cars. I had no idea why – I guess to throw off anyone who might be tailing us? – but I did it anyway. Two minutes later the car stopped, I was told to get out and one of the miners took a chainsaw from the boot.
This didn't do anything for the composure of my bowels, but as it turned out, he wasn't about to carve me into a puzzle of messy limbs, he just wanted to cut down some trees and block the road. Phew!
We arrived back at the mine, where large groups of miners were now arriving, felling more trees and dropping them from a footbridge that connected one side of the valley to the mine. They added tyres and petrol to the pile of debris in the middle of the highway beneath and set them alight, which has its risks, but helped the miners achieve their aim of creating a massive traffic jam.
To stop the cops from using the footbridge, the miners fashioned a spiked barrier that they hammered into place. On the front of the gate they'd wriiten "No entry for bastards", which was clearly aimed at the cops and not early morning dog walkers.
At the entrance to the mine, another tree was brought down. Just to ward off the cops that teensy little bit more, they set fire to it as well.
Meanwhile, back at the footbridge, the fire on the highway was running a little low, so the miners went for broke and started feeding whole fucking trees into it. It's kind of impossible not to look like a badass when you're doing that.
Three hours had passed and the cops were still nowhere to be seen. As the miners chatted amongst themselves and checked the defences, I began to think they weren't going to show at all. I was wrong:
I headed back to the barricade at the entrance to the mine, when, out of nowhere, riot vans pulled up on the other side of the river and started firing volleys of tear gas at the miners, who responded with their rocket launchers.
The air was thick with tear gas and smoke from the fireworks (the miners used €4000 worth on this one day alone), but I'd been wise enough to buy a gas mask and goggles on the day of my arrival. Unfortunately, not all the miners had come as prepared, and were forced back by the gas.
The police were mainly attacking from the front, but they also sent a number of vehicles to the rear of the mine and blanketed the area in tear gas. The miners responded with rockets and slingshots, and even started throwing the tear gas canisters back.
With the thick plumes of smoke, the frequent large explosions and all the screaming people running across the industrial landscape, it felt like a re-enactment of Stalingrad, except not with toy weapons, because no one here was lame.
The tear gas eventually forced the miners back but, as they withdrew, other miners set up firing positions to cover their comrades:
The police, under the cover of a smokescreen, were able to remove one of the road barriers at the rear of the mine, making it possible for them to flank the miners and attack from the front. A large contingent of miners then moved to defend the entrance to their workplace:
The police then attacked the footbridge, trying to clear the miners who were defending it. Somehow they mistook me for a miner and decided to fire a volley of rubber bullets my way, too. Cheers, guys!
The miners slowly began to run out of rockets for their launchers and so at times resorted to throwing stones and drawing the police out into the open.
Though the police seemed more than happy to cower behind the guard dog's house.
At this point, the barricades had been in operation for almost five hours and the miners were getting tired. Can you blame this guy for taking a well-deserved break?
The break wouldn't last long though, as the cops used tear gas to disperse the miners that were throwing stones. Once again, other miners who had conserved some rockets made sure they were covered.
The guy in the blue cap was one of my guides. Just the day before, my translator had said that if I wanted to see action, I should stick with him. Sure enough, while it was kicking off he was in the middle of it all. As you can see, he's a hell of a shot with the rocket launcher. I've nicknamed him "Juan Rambo".
This trigger-happy fella had been firing rubber bullets from his shotgun all day. These rubber bullets aren't your average kind – instead of firing a shell that resembles a regular bullet, this design fires a rubber ball that bounces around and the more it bounces, the stronger its ultimate impact is. It's not that accurate, though; I didn't see anyone get hit by one of them all day.
At this point, the miners had almost completely run out of ammo and so withdrew further into the mine, out of the reach of the cops. The police refuse to enter the mine – that guy I told you about earlier who lost his eye did so chasing the miners down into their pit. I was lucky enough to be invited up into the huge tower that overlooks the battleground. From there, some miners would occasionally slingshot out a bolt to remind the cops to stay the fuck away.
As things quietened down, the cops escorted a fire truck to douse the fire and move the wood, but as you can see in the video above, the miners had other ideas. They fired off two rockets and the firemen retreated.
Whilst the battle raged on, the barricade still held across the highway, creating a huge tailback during rush hour. At one point I saw one of the miners attempt to tear off the door of a coach and wondered what he was doing – turns out they sometimes attempt to demobilise coaches and HGVs by stealing the keys, or snapping them off in the ignition, to add more blockades to the highway. In this instance though, the driver was having none of it and reversed away at speed.
After the last rockets of the day, the police got bored and simply drove off. This, BTW, is a very different policing style to that used in the UK. If this happened on some coalfields in Wales you'd expect every trouble-making miner to either be arrested on the day or in their homes further down the line. Down here, you could easily mistake the fighting for a game. Neither side really wants to seriously injure the other – if a cop was killed, it would damage the miners' cause, and if a miner was killed, there's the possibility that they'd be made a martyr, aggravating the situation further. At the same time, though, they need to show each other who's boss.
With a bailout looming and unemployment at 25 percent, these are volatile times for Spain. This strike is only adding to the uncertainty surrounding the country's future – but for now, the miners can't worry about the future of their country, as their own destinies, as well as those of the people who depend upon them, are just as unknowable.
Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston