Inside the Cerro Rico Mine

"No podemos," I said after consulting Al and Roxanna. We can't.

No doubt if we had cheeks stuffed with coca leaves we'd have found it easier, but we didn't.

The boys offered to take us to a different area.

We retraced our steps to the main shaft and continued the downward descent on foot. At times we could stand tall, at others times we had to crouch and crawl. The heat and humidity intensified. Once again we veered to the right, through a low narrow tunnel where the ground was a wet sloppy mud. The stench became more and more pronounced. At another fork we stopped. The boys had some tools stashed behind beams. There was another rusting hand winch above another dark cavern.

They explained this was a new area they were mining, too small for more than one person. One of the guys hooked up and was lowered down. Roxanna leaned over the edge and reached down with her camera to shoot him from above. In a minute or two the winch was cranked up, attached to it a frayed canvas bag filled with rocks. Julio Cesar took the bag and awkwardly lifted it to a wheelbarrow he brought nearby. He repeated this until the wheelbarrow was full. He pushed with all the might of his small frame and disappeared down the tunnel, dumping the rocks.

This went on for some time. "We got a problem," Al said.

His camera had suddenly stopped working. It was easy to see why. The stifling heat and humidity were hard for all of us to tolerate. The sensitive electronics of the video camera simply couldn't cope. With just one camera left, Roxanna handed hers to Al.

We asked the guys to stop mining and I did a quick interview. All of them professed love for their work; none of them would admit fear. It was very clear that an unwritten macho code of conduct was in play. And perhaps it's the only option when the inside of these grim mines is your daily fate.

When I asked them if they had seen bad things happen like injuries or death, the veterans, especially Julio Cesar's 23-year-old brother, Luis Alberto, related tales of horror; like the time not so long ago that five men died breathing poisonous gas in the mine. I had noticed earlier that none of the men wear any face protection at all.

The next morning when we were at the Miner's Market, I asked a miner who was looking for a new head lamp if he wore a mask. He said no, he couldn't afford one. When I asked how much a mask would cost, he told me about 150 B's, or $20. I considered buying him one, but when I asked him, if he had such a mask, would he wear it, he shook his head and smiled. "No," he said. Macho rules.

There is no culture of safety here. There are no posters at the mine entrance warning people about the hazards within. There is so much toxic dust inside the Cerro Rico that they say that a boy like Julio Cesar — if he continues to work in the mine — will have lung disease by his late 20s, will be too sick to work by his late 30s, and will die in his 40s.

With our camera soldiering on in the humidity, we decided it was time to record some of my on-camera commentary (a.k.a. "standup"). Al lit it beautifully and I crouched in the tunnel, talking about the illustrious and awful history of this place I have come to [know] as "the most important place in the history of the modern world that most people have never heard of."

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