The tunnel was dank, dark and toxic. I sloshed through deep water that glowed an unnatural putrid neon green; the color made when combining piss, explosive residues and heavy metals. The air stunk of sulfur and arsenic, and psychedelic green and yellow crystals formed themselves in patches on the rock. Something told me I shouldn’t touch them. It’s been estimated that over a million people have died in these tunnels, slaves and free men alike. I was in Potosi, Bolivia’s Cerro Rico silver mine, and it was hell on earth.
A kilometer into the mountain two teenage miners labored all day with no food, no visible source of water, only coca leaves- the raw product used in the production of cocaine. A medicinal plant widely used in Bolivia and Peru, the miners, and even the guides, still believe it helps filter the toxic dust they ingest with every breath. This isn’t work for the weak. When an older miner dies, his son takes his place. Boys as young as 12. They earn as little as 200 Bolivianos a month ($30USD), and occasionally strike it rich. It’s a lottery game, where only an early death is a certainty.
Above ground, the miners believe in God and pray to the Virgin Mary, but down here, the Devil is their God. The guide explained it like this: to the miners, there are two worlds: the woman’s world, the one of light and air and God, the Pachamama. Below ground is the realm of man and masculinity and devil, and wherever you are, you must appeal to the God of that territory.
We crawled along, sometimes on hands and knees and below cracked beams, choking and sputtering, and entered the Devil’s filthy shrine: a rancid smell hung in the air, a smell of death, decay, cigarettes, and chewed up coca leaves. Made of clay, he had long curling horns and a monstrous penis pointed towards the intruder. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying. Gaping soot-filled mouth and nose and black eyes that wept ash, he held his hands out, greedy for the offerings the poor minors would leave behind, praying for him to spare their lives and give them prosperity. Alcohol, cigarettes, coca leaves, little colored flags and banners, the carcass of a lamb fetus. None of it mattered- the life expectancy for a miner is between 45-55 years of age, before his shredded lungs give out, the result of years of heavy labor while breathing in arsenic and lead-filled dust. I coughed uneasily as another group went by wearing protective masks, and wondered why we hadn’t been given any.
It was Easter Sunday.