Whatever the horrors and deprivations suffered by the 33 miners now trapped 700 m below ground in a collapsed Chilean mine, they at least knew from the moment of the cave-in that others would be trying to free them. They worked for a company with access to heavy machinery and rescue equipment. The mine had ventilation shafts and a refuge room. And the trapped miners are all grown men, not children.
In the hills and mountains surrounding the now famous San José mine in Chile’s Atacama desert, there are hundreds of miners who enjoy none of these comforts. Known as pirquineros, these men, and sometimes children, are freelancers who burrow into abandoned mines or promising hillsides. Safety measures are rudimentary. Rickety ladders disappear down black holes. Wire cables haul up rusted carts creaking with hundreds of pounds of mineral-infused rocks. When a cart gets stuck, a miner drops into darkness with a wrench and crowbar and pounds on almost-vertical railway ties until the cart can pass again.
Those working on their own are especially vulnerable. “We have so many pirquineros in the mountains. Some don’t come back. Maybe they left. Maybe they died. Nobody knows,” says Ignacio Nazar, a pirquinero and secretary of a local independent miners’ union. “That’s why it’s important to have partners. But many don’t.”
Some pirquineros pay the government or the company that owns the mine for access to their land. Others need to be nimble. “I walk up there,” long-time pirquinero Daniel Rodríguez says, pointing into the mountains. “If I find a vein, I’ll dig. When the owner comes, I leave. Quickly.”
“We don’t get permission from anyone,” his partner, Alfonso Olavarría, adds. “We move all the time.”
Maclean’s visited a pirquineros’ mine on the outskirts of Copiapó. Dubbed the San Francisco mine, six men work there, sleeping in nearby shacks. They mine for copper, descending down a narrow, unlit hole that levels off deep below the ground, where they use drills and explosives to probe for copper. Sections of the hole are covered with rough-cut planks of wood, unsecured and bleached by the sun.
The boss at the San Francisco mine is Alejandro Ramírez, who rents it from a mining company. He’s 57 and has been a pirquinero for 22 years. Retirement isn’t an option. “I’ll never have a pension,” he says. “If I worked for a corporation, yes. But I’m too old for that now.”
Samuel Zarricueta, 31, works for him. He has been a pirquinero since he was nine. He stayed in school until he was 11, helping his father in mines during vacations. At 12, he quit school and learned to use a drill. “I have no education. That’s why I do this,” he says.
Zarricueta stands beside a pile of rubble that the miners will sort, discarding the worthless rocks and keeping those with veins of metal. These will be trucked out and processed nearby. He wears a grease-covered T-shirt and pants ripped open at the crotch, from one knee to the other. He has a wife and children but sees them only on days he doesn’t work. Most of the time he sleeps at the mine, sharing a shack with another man. “It’s ugly but it’s mine,” he says, showing off the place, then adds: “It looks like a jail.”
There is a foam mattress where he sleeps and a few piles of clothes. Newspaper pin-up girls are tacked to the wall, as is a cloth-button image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of Chile. He takes the button off the wall and kisses it. “She sleeps with me every night,” he says.
Zarricueta’s father, a miner, died of silicosis. “It’s normal here. If you’re working as a pirquinero, you’re going to breath dust. All you can do is work for your kids, so they can study.” But Zarricueta’s own son, José, is already working with his dad. “My son comes with me underground. I take him down in the cart,” says Zarricueta. “He also fetches tools, brings water, uses a hammer. Small things. He’s learning. He likes it here. It’s part of his culture. And he wants to make money. He wants a cellphone, I tell him to come to the mine. Anyway, if my son wants to be a miner, that’s his decision.”
Officially, children are not permitted to work as pirquineros, but Zarricueta says the practice is not uncommon. “The pirquineros are close. If the inspectors are coming, we’ll warn each other,” he says. “We do the same thing so we know when we need to put the explosives away.” Adds Nazar: “I’ve seen kids working outside, but everyone knows that when the inspectors aren’t there, the kids go underground.”
According to Zarricueta, since the San José mine collapse, government inspectors have been more active, and children are staying away from most mines. But, he says, kids still work in remote and difficult-to-access locations.
Despite the apparent dangers and absence of benefits or pensions, most pirquineros say they would rather work independently than for a mining company. Several pirquineros interviewed by Maclean’s had previously worked for mining firms but chose to strike out on their own.
Pirquineros say they are safer than they would be working for a corporation, because they are responsible for their own safety and can make their own decisions. They like the freedom. They say the money is good. And there is always the hope of catching a break and becoming wealthy overnight.
Nazar tells the story of five or six pirquineros who came down from the mountains with a kilogram of gold worth some $32,000. He says they spent the money in a weekend. “Drink and sex,” he says. “Also food.” Another miner, working near the land Nazar rents, found a big vein and soon had enough money to buy three houses in the Chilean capital, Santiago. The two men pass each other in their respective pickup trucks and wave.
It usually doesn’t work out this way, of course. Maclean’s visited a pirquineros’ processing facility, where rocks brought down from the mountains are ground to dust and minerals are extracted from them. The final steps involve adding mercury, a toxin, to a vat of water and gold and silver-laden dust. Workers use their bare hands to squeeze the mixture through a cloth, which leaves the metals behind. Partners Alfonso Olavarría and Daniel Rodríguez showed up with the rocks they had gathered after 10 days of digging. When all these were processed, the result was a nugget of gold, silver and mercury the size of a grape. Rodríguez estimated it would earn them $90.
One of the workers at the processing facility is 73-year-old Pedro Lobeza. Deep crevices cross the white stubble on his face. He has one visible tooth at the front of his mouth, long and blackened at the root. Lobeza sleeps at the facility, serving as a security guard. His wife died seven months ago. “That’s why I live here. Otherwise, I’d be alone in my house,” he says.
Lobeza has been at the processing facility for about a year. He says it keeps him busy. “If you sit in the town square all day, pretty soon you’ll walk like an old man,” he says. Lobeza was a miner for 60 years. He’s been a pirquinero and he’s worked for large corporations. “I’ve mined everywhere. You name it, I’ve been there,” he says. “But now, with all my years, I have a lot of dust in my lungs. No one will hire me.”