Inside the deadly world of Venezuela's illegal mines
19 Mar 2017 - 18:44
By Maria Isabel Sanchez / AFP
El Callao, Venezuela: Barefoot and shirtless in the cavernous belly of an illegal gold mine, Ender doesn't flinch when a piece of rock falls through the darkness and breaks the silence.
Working in the dangerous and violent underworld of illegal mining in eastern Venezuela, the skinny teenager is used to taking his life in his hands every day.
The narrow mine shaft is filled with puddled water and the smell of gases, and the handmade wood supports staving off a collapse look precarious at best.
But Ender Moreno is unfazed. At 18 years old, he has already been doing this job for eight years.
"I'm not afraid," he said as he climbed through the pitch black, his headlamp lighting the way through the hazardous maze 30 meters (100 feet) underground.
"I'll probably do this till I die."
The inside of the mine is no scarier than the outside.
There is a bloody mafia war raging for control of the unlicensed, artisanal gold mines in the Venezuelan state of Bolivar. Miners regularly turn up dead, their bodies mutilated or riddled with bullets.
Shootouts with assault rifles are common currency in the region.
Two weeks ago, three young men Ender knew were killed in his neighborhood of El Callao.
The day before, he had been dancing with them at the annual carnival celebrations in the city, the cradle of a gold rush that started in 1870 and has recently intensified.
"They were miners, but they started running around with gangsters," he said.
Ten months ago, his boss at the mine was killed. The miners say it is because he refused to let mobsters take over the business.
Two months before that, 28 workers were massacred at a nearby mine, in what authorities called a turf war between rival gangs.
- Gold fever -
The head of the Venezuelan Mining Chamber, Luis Rojas, estimates that 90 percent of the gold produced in the South American nation comes from illegal mines.
In a country where a crushing economic crisis has fueled an epidemic of violent crime, such mines are "primarily in mafia hands," he said.
At the nearby Nacupay gold mine, workers dig the earth from the bed of a contaminated river as others pour mercury into pans of extracted sediment.
The open-pit mine is known as one of the most violent and polluting in the region.
Few people are willing to talk openly about the "vaccines," or extortion money, that miners and shopkeepers have to pay their mafia overlords in this lawless area.
"It's like a parallel government," said one miner, who asked AFP not to use his name for fear of reprisals.
"This place belongs to one group. The others have to keep their hands off it. Each group has its territory," said miner Argenis Tarazona.
"Whoever breaks the rules, whoever robs, they kill him or beat him up," added Tarazona, 47.
He left his five children three years ago to try his luck as a gold miner, after finding he could no longer support them on his salary as an industrial mechanic.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans from across the country have flocked to this region as President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government has struggled with a three-year recession, spiraling inflation and food shortages.
Workers are bused in to the mines every morning, their pickaxes and shovels slung over their shoulders and their pans perched on their heads like hats.
Others sleep on site in malaria-ridden camps built with sheets of black plastic.
They make somewhere between 260,000 and one million bolivars a month ($95 to $360 at the black-market exchange rate), they say -- far higher than minimum wage.
"I've got no other choice. I was working as a porter, but I couldn't support my three kids," said Gilberto Urrieta, 32, who arrived four months ago.
"Now I send them 150,000 bolivars a month."
After riding a worn green rope back to the surface, Ender contemplated his future during a short break.
"My mom says this is no kind of life. But I can't stop because I need the money to help her," the teenage miner said.
"I'm young and I want to enjoy life. But when your time is up, it's up. Everyone has to die sometime."