THE DEVIL’S MINER is the story of 14-year-old Basilio Vargas and his 12-year-old brother Bernardino, who work in the ancient Cerro Rico silver mines of Bolivia. It is believed that over eight million workers have perished in the mines since the 16th century.
Bernardino (left) and Basilio working
Vanessa with her brothers after a day in the mines
Raised without a father and living in extreme poverty with their mother and six-year-old sister on the slopes of the mine, the boys assume many adult responsibilities. It takes two months’ work just to afford the clothing and supplies vital to their education. Without an education, the brothers have no chance to escape their destiny in the silver mines.
The Vargas boys chew coca leaves to stave off hunger and keep their wits about them during their long hours in the mines, where they also present offerings to El Tío, the malevolent spirit that is believed to reside there. Each mine has its own statue of the horned demon who guards the mine’s riches. According to local legend the mines are the exclusive
province of El Tío, the protector and destroyer of the miners.
El Tío is a miner’s only hope of salvation in this heavily Catholic region, where the people believe that the spirit of God does not exist in the hellish underworld inside the mountain.
Filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani spent months with the Vargas family, journeying down into the Cerro Rico mines with Basilio, Bernardino and the adult villagers who risk their lives to make a meager living. The result is both harrowing and moving, a portrait of a world where children risk their lives daily in hopes of an eventual better life—if the quest doesn’t kill them first.
Get an update on the Vargas family >>
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Learn about the city of Potosí and the legend of El Tio >>
Top photos (L-R):
Manuela Vargas works as the guardian at the entrance of the La Cumbre Mine
Bernardino has spent his last two years in the mines as an apprentice miner
Vanessa, the youngest child in the Vargas family