In 1936, George Orwell visited a coal mine in Grimethorpe, England. “The place is like… my own mental picture of hell,” he wrote of the experience. “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” Orwell was a lanky guy, 6'3" or 6'2", and I am too, so I was reminded of his comparison recently while crawling through a tunnel as dank and dark as a medieval sewer, nearly a mile underground in one of the oldest active mines in Latin America, the Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. The chutes were so narrow that I couldn’t have turned around—or turned back—even if I’d wanted to.
Orwell wasn’t the first to equate mines with hell; Bolivian miners already know they labor in the inferno. In the past 500 years, at least 4 million of them have died from cave-ins, starvation, or black lung in Cerro Rico, and as a sly fuck-you to the pious Spaniards who set up shop here in 1554 and enslaved the native Quechua Indians, Bolivian miners worship the devil—part of a schizophrenic cosmology in which God governs above while Satan rules the subterranean.
As an offering to him, miners slaughter llamas and smear blood around the entrances to the 650 mineshafts that swiss-cheese this hill. Near the bloodstains, just inside the mine, a visitor can find beady-eyed statues with beards and raging boners—a goofy caricature of Satan known as El Tío, or “the Uncle,” to whom workers give moonshine and cigarettes in exchange for good luck. Before entering the mountain, I’d offered a small pouch of coca leaves to one of these little devils, requesting a bendiga, a blessing for my safety.
A few hours later, I was hundreds of feet underground, shambling through three-foot-tall tunnels, bony knees bruising over hard rock. My guide, Dani, a miniature man with the strength and temperament of a donkey, had burrowed so far ahead that he’d disappeared into the darkness. I called out to him. When he didn’t reply, my photographer, Jackson, turned to me and coughed. “I’m freaking out,” he said, and we soldiered on, trying to trace Dani’s path through the sulfur-stinking shafts.
The Cerro Rico is collapsing. At its most productive the Rich Hill, as its name translates into English, yielded more than half of the world’s silver, bankrolled the Spanish empire for 200 years, and inspired a popular saying based on the name of the city where it’s located: “Worth a potosí,” as in “That Escalade must be worth a potosí, hombre.”
But after 500 years of exploitation, the hill—which, at almost 16,000 feet, is actually a gigantic mountain towering like a skyscraper above the ramshackle churches and plazas of this city of 240,000 people—is as exhausted as its workers. Today, it still produces a little tin, zinc, and silver, and 15,000 men continue to labor inside of it, but they’ve done such a thorough job that the Cerro Rico has become structurally unsound. “One of the fears,” Roberto Fernandez, coordinator of the labor rights NGO Yachaj Mosoj, told a reporter in 2010, “is that Cerro Rico is going to crumble like the Twin Towers, floor by floor.”
In an attempt to calm Jackson’s nerves, I reminded him that tourists were taken into these mines all the time. I’d actually visited ten years ago. What I didn’t mention to him was that the depth at which we were spelunking was far beyond the limits recommended to study-abroad students.
Jackson and I were on a mission to find child miners, 3,000 of whom are rumored to work in the Cerro Rico illegally. Their work is officially forbidden by the Bolivian government, so they tend to stay out of sight when foreigners come around. But Jackson was still nervous, with good reason—according to the most recent available statistics, 60 children died from cave-ins and other accidents in the Cerro Rico in 2008 alone. In a country as poor as Bolivia, just because tourists—or children—are allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s safe.
When we finally caught up with Dani, he had crawled his way to a group of working miners. Mazes of tiny tunnels led to large rooms carved out of rock, where silver veins have been dug out with hand picks, jackhammers, and sticks of dynamite. Five filthy and shirtless men stood around. Dani introduced us.
“Osama bin Laden is hiding down here!” laughed a guy with a shovel, stripped to the waist. When I pointed out that bin Laden was dead, he seemed genuinely surprised.
The men were in their 30s, they told me, and they’d been working together in the mines for about ten years, splitting the profits of the minerals they collected and sold. At best, they each made about $30 a day. They confirmed that there were children working down there but couldn’t say exactly where. But we didn’t talk long. It was nearing the end of the workday, they had just finished planting eight dynamite sticks in a nearby rock face, and they wanted to ignite it so they could go home—but they couldn’t, because they’d forgotten matches.
“Captain America,” one miner said to me, “do you have any matches?”
I didn’t. The only solution was for someone to scramble back up to the mouth of the mine—a half-hour journey at a steady clip—and retrieve some.
And that’s how Dani, our trusted guide, abandoned us in the depths of the Cerro Rico.
“I’ll go get some for you, brothers,” he told the crew before racing off into one of the feeder shafts and disappearing. They shrugged and returned to work.
“Jesus,” Jackson said. “He really left.”
“Yup,” I said.
A few minutes later, I heard a sizzling sound. Jackson stared at me. Then we both looked to the corner of the chamber where dynamite fuses dangled from a wall, like tampon strings.
“Are they lit?” I asked one of the miners.
“You bet,” he said. Apparently they’d found some matches after all.
“When are they going to explode?” I asked. It seemed like a pertinent question, given that we were standing almost a mile underground, in a chamber full of dynamite, inside an already collapsing mountain.
“Any minute, Captain America. You’d better run!”