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Life's a gamble for Chile's 'wildcat' gold miners

By Karl Penhaul, CNN
  • Chile's government is struggling to regulate "wildcat" mining, a dangerous practice
  • These mines are operated by one or two miners and are difficult for officials to find
  • Manuel Vargas, 68, and Manuel Olivares, 75, operate one mine in Inca de Oro
  • Nearby hillsides are dotted with crosses, memorials to the miners who have died

Inca de Oro, Chile (CNN) -- Two old-timers sit side by side on a desert rock, cutting detonating cord and decanting explosive pink fertilizer into thin tubes of newspaper.

They've long forgotten how many sticks of dynamite they've blown up or how many ounces of precious minerals they've dug up in the decades they've been miners.

In this part of northern Chile, mining runs in the veins.

Manuel Vargas, 68, and his sidekick Manuel Olivares, 75, started out with picks and shovels. Some years ago they traded up to pneumatic drills. But for them, there has only ever been one treasure -- the glitter of gold.

Even as they advance in years, they still have each other's backs, because they know wildcat mining here can be deadly.

"Some [of my friends] have died," Vargas said. "Some have been crushed by the mountain or fallen down a mineshaft, but what can you do about it?

"That's just your luck."

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The desert hillsides here are dotted with modest crosses in memory of some of those miners who died underground. They call the crosses "animitas" or "little spirits."

Each time Vargas passes one of the "little spirits," he waves his hand or toots his truck horn.

"It's just like if you see a stranger out in the desert, you greet him. I always greet the little spirits. You never know when the same could happen to you," he said.

Olivares doesn't speak much. But he grins a lot behind the transparent plastic safety goggles he wears at a rakish angle.

Vargas says Olivares sometimes even wears the eyewear to bed.

Ask Olivares if he's found his fortune, and he gives the thumb-up.

Ask him if he trusts his lifelong friend Vargas not to double-cross him when they strike gold, and he laughs and waggles his hand.

"I trust him, more or less," he joked.

In fact, the pair trust one another with their lives.

The Chilean government is struggling to regulate wildcat mining. The tiny mining prospects -- small vertical shafts -- pockmark remote parts of the northern Atacama desert.

Each is operated by just one or two miners, making the mines tough for officials to find, and even tougher to control.

Vargas calls his mine "la cerquita" -- Spanish for "the near one" -- because it is close to his wooden bungalow in the town of Inca de Oro.

The mine, about 25 meters (80 feet) deep, was dug before either Vargas or Olivares can remember, but had long been abandoned.

Now, with gold prices at sky-high levels, the pair think they can make a profit searching for a forgotten vein.

But like many other wildcat miners in this region, they're taking a gamble on striking gold. Until they do, they have no savings to invest in safety measures.

A wooden ladder fixed to a rope by a loose knot dangles halfway down into the mineshaft. They make the final descent to the floor of the mine by a homemade ladder crafted out of metal cable and pinned to the rock wall.

"If some idiot falls into the hole then he just has to pick himself back up again," Vargas says.

He's not oblivious to the dangers but prefers to rely on experience and instinct to protect himself from a potential cave-in.

"If you're working, hammering away, [and] then small stones begin falling, that's the mountain giving a warning it's about to collapse. So you have to get out of the mine and smoke a cigarette for a while," he explained.

About 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Inca de Oro lies the San Jose mine, a much larger operation, where 33 miners have been trapped for a month since a cave-in.

Vargas and Olivares, like the rest of Chile, have been following news of their miner comrades.

"They're buried alive. They should have died, but they're alive. It's great to know they're fine. This was a kind of miracle from God," Vargas said.

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But he fears there will be an official backlash. Vargas said he thought the Chilean government would begin to clamp down on wildcat mines like his, force them to register, and impose stringent safety measures that could make his small-scale operation unprofitable.

If that happens, Vargas fears Inca de Oro could become a ghost town, as miners move elsewhere looking to strike it rich.

In fact, the gold rush came and went long ago in Inca de Oro.

Olivares still vaguely remembers the good times, when pretty girls danced in the town's bordellos and fortunes were won and lost at the gambling tables.

If you're working, hammering away, [and] then small stones begin falling, that's the mountain giving a warning it's about to collapse.
--Manuel Vargas, 68, gold miner

But many of the miners' wooden houses now stand empty or derelict. The train line that ferried passengers and minerals up to the port in Antofagasta or down to Santiago long went out of service; its rusted remnants are all that are left.

What hasn't changed in all those years is the riskiness of being a wildcat miner.

Vargas and Olivares are confident they have enough experience to offset the dangers. But the job they've lived for could still end up killing them.

As they emerge from the dusty mineshaft after hours of drilling, both are wheezing heavily. Vargas has a hacking cough and is spitting.

He says he has "dirt in the lungs." He means silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by breathing in silica dust.

"Eventually I'll have to stop work, and it will be hard to walk five or 10 yards without getting tired," he said.

As the afternoon begins to fade and long shadows dance across the desert, the two Manuels finish preparing dynamite and fertilizer explosives. They're ready to set the charges to blow a hole in the rock below.

The pair disappear once again down the near vertical mineshaft with a brass gas lamp to light their way -- watching each other's backs, as they always have.

As a three-minute fuse fizzes, the two old-timers come scurrying up the wood ladder. Their legs are still strong enough to get them out the way of a dynamite blast.

And their eyes are still bright enough to spot the glitter of gold.

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