Metal bands speak often of the devil, their thrashing screeds causing ears to bleed for Satan himself; but tripe ‘tis, for not even Glen Benton has actually gone mano-a-mano with Lucifer. But I did, literally and metaphorically, in the last place I’d have expected an encounter with the dark prince: the Cerro Rico silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia.

SAM_4793It was August 2012 in Potosi, the world’s highest city at 13,420 feet above sea level. Without doubt, the most frequented point in the city is the Cerro Rico mine. And soundly so: Cerro Rico undergirds Potosi’s entire historical importance, since it was the primary silver supply for Spain during the period of its empire in the Americas. Otherwise, the town would be another of the nameless backwaters to largely unsung in South America. But with mineral riches, things changed. Cerro Rico’s silver was ported via llama and mule train to South America’s Pacific coast, shipped north to Panama City, transported by mule train across Panama to the port of Portobelo, at which point the ill-gotten gain was taken to Spain on Spanish treasure fleet. Cerro Rico’s peak is actually at 15,827 feet, and any photo of Potosi shows the mine overpowering the city’s landscape.

SAM_4718Estimates suggest between 10,000 and 25,000 men, women, and children presently labor in Cerro Rico’s loose, suffocating, lightless shafts. Over 8 million have died in the mine over the centuries: cave-ins and a murderous lung affliction known as silicosis harvest their souls, their bodies interred in Potosi’s miners’ cemetery. To date, roughly 46,000 metric tons of silver have been extracted from Cerro Rico. The average life expectancy of a Cerro Rico miner is 35 to 40 years of age. It would be an understatement for the ages to suggest that the ones doing the work are getting the short end of this bargain. Gringos and Europeans – forever enamored with the notion of the adventure tourism stories they’ll chronicle over beers in the expat bar one day – arrive in gaggles to visit Cerro Rico, still in operation 480 years after the Spaniards blasted it open and obliged, at sword-point, the indigenous to squander their lives digging to facilitate Madrid’s ill-gotten gain. I’m critical of travelers who treat the Cerro Rico tour as casually as, say, zip-lining in Cuzco; yet it’s understandable that so many people come to this place. Simply put, Cerro Rico is akin to witnessing the brutality of colonialism’s in the modern day, in real time. There’s a macabre fascination to the whole thing: Spanish enslavement of populations throughout the Americas was hardly a rose garden, but the particulars of Bolivia were inhuman and grotesque even by the hideous standards the conquistadores and imperial administrators established elsewhere in the hemisphere. How many places can you actually see the real-life effects of that in the flesh? Of course, now things are different in a sense: these days, miners are asked to wear helmets. Because, you know, as all the signs most lucidly indicate at the mines, safety is #1.

I bartered a private tour. I spoke Spanish with greater fluency than my potential tour mates, and being entirely frank, I didn’t feel like waiting for them to “get it” while the guide explained things, or even worse, contend with wide-eyed, routinely naïve questions and constant photo-ops. The fewer, the better.

SAM_4776My guide was a former miner who left the job after 9 years to work for a local travel agency affording gringos like me the luxury of treating miners’ daily misery as a backpacker’s novelty. For the privilege of his expertise in this darkest of places, I was charged 8 dollars plus tip. He was in his early 40s. He was a man who spoke simply and lived even simpler, dressed smartly in a flannel shirt tucked into jeans and galoshes. His clean appearance did not conceal, however, the contagion running rampant in his body. A pronounced, incessant cough hinted at his reality: he lives along the razor-sharp, rapidly advancing hands of the miner’s biological clock. You suspect he is not long for this earth, that his kids will never have the benefit of seeing him at graduation. They will not have a father to attend weddings or grandchildren’s birth. Even had he lasted 20 years in the mines, there is no pension or retirement fund for miners. They tough it out until the shafts or their lungs collapse. Game over. To speak to him was to commune with the walking dead, and we were both acutely cognizant of it. I am almost his age. It could have been me.

SAM_4787I met him at the travel agency in the early morning, and we bussed directly to the miner’s market, which is tucked into a populated hamlet at the base of Cerro Rico. On arrival, we purchased coca leaves, dynamite sticks, soda, and smokes, all to be given as gifts and offerings to the miners I’d ultimately meet this day. We additionally purchased gloves to give to the kids working in the mines, who numbered approximately 800 in the guide’s estimation. They are mostly ages 11 to 14, and are employed specifically to penetrate shafts too diminutive for men themselves. Profit being the bottom line for the mining consortiums, Bolivian families being in generally dire financial straits, and cost of living forever on the rise all conspire in tandem, forging a ruthless trifecta damning these kids to exit childhood prematurely.


SAM_4757The purchase of gifts completed, the guide took me to an outfitting area – really just a small closet in someone’s shack off the market area – where I changed into boots, a protective overcoat and trousers, and a helmet equipped with canteen lantern. Then we proceeded to Cerro Rico, found a hole leading into the depths, and before I ask myself if I was claustrophobic, we were underground, the light of day fading fast from view as we trudged deeper into the mine. And answering my own question, yes, I learned quickly that I’m very claustrophobic. No sooner had we entered than I could sense the atmosphere shifting. Outside the mine at thousands of feet above sea level, breathing was already a complicated endeavor; inside, the air felt orders of magnitude tighter. Anxiety kicked in when I was unable to draw a full breath and my lungs lurched, constricting as they fought for oxygen. My hands began numbing, my elbows tingled, and I felt weakness in my knees. I began envisioning a cave-in. Instinct told me to leave, that this was no place for humans, that it was a sepulcher. Even when I did get air, it was peppered with dust particles and these coated my airbags, provoking a hackneyed cough and scratching my windpipe.

SAM_4723Once at a sufficient distance from the entrance, light was long faded save the weak yellow rays emanating from the helmet canteen lantern. Extinguish the lamp, and rayon engulfs you. I have never been to such a black place. Hundreds of meters underground, the shafts grew narrower. I lowered my head, hunching to fit through; these spaces were made for indigenous Bolivians, who in general terms are a foot shorter than me. I’m not one to “freak out” over plane turbulence or near-accidents on the highway, but there was something particularly urgent – spiritually and physically – in these mine shafts. I intuited the likelihood of a panic attack. This was less than 20 minutes into the mine; how do people work their entire lives here and not lose their sanity?


SAM_4770And this is precisely where Satan made his first appearance. We stopped before a statue of El Diablo, whom the miners call El Tio, or uncle. Anthropologists, historians, and the miners themselves advance a multitude of distinct theories on how they settled on devil worship in the depths of the earth, but the bottom line seems to be that God is well and good above ground, but only Satan – lord of the underworld – will protect them while below. In this way they are double-safeguarded throughout life, and specifically against cave-ins while toiling in the shafts. Though the Church would work itself into a tizzy over such a duality, the miners see no contradiction in terms, and their pre-Spanish religions were polytheistic, so what’s the big deal? This is merely a modern adaption of an age-old practice as far as they’re concerned. I challenge any hardcore monotheist to spend some time in the mines. There is no place I can imagine further from God on earth, and while down there, the miners’ logic began to seem not only sensible, but necessary for psychological survival.

SAM_4761Satan’s horns had been blunted by erosion, but there was nothing dull about the statue’s presence. His blackened eye sockets were the perfect lonely metaphor for utter hopelessness, and his mouth was puckered down into a frown, somewhere between hate and pain. And he had a chubby stone penis: virile is the devil, his pulsating and odious member sowing into the miners an impregnable fear. Satan was covered in coca leaves left in offering and appeal every Tuesday and Friday, that he might take mercy on the miners’ souls and prevent a cave-in while they labor. Dried llama blood streaked the walls behind the Tio, the remnants of the crimson sacrifice spilt to preempt his vengeful, whimsical wrath. I thought this was humorous when I first heard about it on the outside, but once staring point-blank into the empty eyes of a horned statue covered in coca leaves and ornamented with splattered animal blood, I found myself singing a wholly different tune.

SAM_4784The guide produced from his protective coat pocket a small plastic bottle of 96-proof moonshine. This locally fabricated intoxicant is ravenously popular among miners as well as local lushes both for its quick-acting effect and basement-bottom price. For quite literally cents on the dollar – reasonable even by the standards of Potosi’s lower classes – you can get blitzed into oblivion. He informed me that protocol dictated we do a shot for the devil. I’m not a drinking man, but by this point I needed alcohol. We poured a quick splash at each of the statue’s four corners, and I took the shot, imbibing far too enthusiastically in the Satanic whiskey and simultaneously too naïve to anticipate the potency of a 96-proof moonshine, in particular the effect it would have on someone like me who consumes, at most, five Bud Lights and three glasses of cheap box wine annually.

And so I consequently choked, and the shot returned through my nose. I buckled over crying and hacking, then went to my knees, certain the burn in my sinuses signified the skin was melting off my face. I began puking at Satan’s feet, literally begging the devil to spare my pathetic life, promising I’d never set foot in a mine again if only he would let me leave this day: “Oh mighty and merciful Lucifer, many a man stronger than I has lain at your feet as I do this very minute, beseeching you not snuff out his pathetic life. And occasionally, you grant the petition. And so I ask of you now, Father Satan, please let me not perish choking on my own snot. It would be very embarrassing, bad for local tourism, and I’d never get to share my photos on Facebook. Plus, I’m dating a ballerina in Mexico and would like to return to her for some well-deserved action.”

SAM_4769And while barfing at the statue’s base, work crews conducted explosions in neighboring shafts. The explosions were similar to the ones I felt year prior in Iraq, that dull thud square on the sternum that makes your stomach the clinch, your trachea tighten. Tiny pebbles trickled down the shaft walls and the wooden supports groaned as the shock reverberated through them. It occurred to me that if a cave-in occurred, it could well be the end. Embarrassed but eventually recovering, we pushed deeper into the mine, eventually coming to a hole in the shaft wall. I’d not have noticed it had the guide failed to draw my attention to it. He bade me squeeze through the hole and see what was on the other side. At first I thought him insane: there was no way I’d fit. But after a few false starts, I made it through. And there labored a kid named Hugo. He was filling a wheelbarrow that looked at least three times bigger than Hugo himself. I did ask Hugo’s age, but I’d place him no older than 14. I greeted him, we shook hands, and we began to speak. When he talked of his family he smiled a lot. Yet when he discussed the job he repeatedly bit his lower lip, and his face twisted, his smile faded, his voice dropped to barely a whisper and he would no longer make eye contact, shifting his gaze manically left and right as though on the lookout for hallmark early warning signs of a cave-in, like the trickling pebbles I’d seen moments prior. I’m no shrink, but the full weight of his contorted mental state struck me suddenly: this kid was traumatized. That much was apparent. It is terrible to realize that our Western concept of childhood is quite naive; kids the world over don’t have the option to experience one.

Even worse, he was wearing a jacket for the specific mining company employing him there, the home offices for which are in a rural state of a specific First World nation that has signed every anti-child labor charter, treaty, and convention in existence, and whose politicians regularly spout off against foreign companies they accuse of violating child labor codes. This was perhaps the most unexpected aspect of my Cerro Rico experience, and a contradictory one at that: to behold in-the-flesh proof that when it comes to profit margins, the truth in faraway places off the corporate watchdog radar is a distinct beast from the “truth” smoothly proclaimed by smiling, suited bureaucrats at press conferences and cocktail parties. This was the point at which I just wanted out, so I asked the guide to take me back to the surface, and he dutifully fulfilled my request.

SAM_0024Once back in Potosi proper, I found the local cemetery. I found a section featuring the mausoleums of many of the city’s dead miners, of which there were thousands. Municipal police manned strategic points around the cemetery, and one officer approached me somewhat aggressively when he saw I was taking photos. He asked me if I was CIA. Alarm bells started ringing all ‘round my noggin: the US and Bolivian authorities don’t have good relations on any level, having already evicted DEA along with McDonald’s and other US chains from national territory, and Potosi (like most highland Bolivian cities) is littered with anti-US graffiti. So I put on my thinking cap and pretended to speak worse Spanish, stammering something about how my late grandfather had been a miner and my intent was to pay respect to his shaft-dwelling brethren while in Potosi.

Apparently satisfied with this explanation, he took me to the administrative office, acquired permission from the chief, and gave me a guided tour of the cemetery himself. He even took me into the crematorium (which I didn’t get to photograph since there were people there witnessing the return-to-ashes of dead relatives and this didn’t seem a prudent moment to be snapping away), and then escorted me to the police mausoleum to pay additional tribute to deceased Bolivian cops. He was insistent that I place coca leaves and whiskey at their graves as well, just like for El Diablo. He stood next to me, dictating the protocol of how this ought be accomplished. I just wanted to leave, but since he had the gun and therefore the power, I complied.


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