Miners & Minors


The Mountain

EL TÍO “If El Tío is not fed, he will take matters into his own hands and feed on human flesh. But for many of Potosí’s citizens, El Tío is more trustworthy than their own government….”
—Aaron Roesch, “Unearthing Potosi: The Enduring Plight of Bolivian Miners”

Deep inside the mines of Cerro Rico are hundreds of statues of the Devil in the shape of a goat. The Catholics of Potosí know him as El Tío (The Uncle), lord of the underworld. According to their traditions, he rules over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction. Miners leave offerings for El Tío—tobacco, liquor, coca leaves—in hopes that he will spare their lives.

In THE DEVIL’S MINER, Basilio and Bernardino, the young miners, are shown to be fervent believers in the awesome power of El Tío, providing offerings every day in hopes of his intercession. At regular intervals, the villagers of Potosí offer a sacrifice to the devil in the mines, ritually slaughtering a llama and smearing the animal’s blood on the adit, the entrance to the mine, and one another, in hopes of slaking El Tío’s bloodlust that has claimed so many of their ancestors.

The legend of El Tío can be seen in other Catholic cultures that practice the religion of voudou, such as the related belief in Legba, the loa [God] of protection who is often represented as a statue. Like El Tío, Legba is seen as a guardian in Haiti and some cultures in New Orleans, and practitioners traditionally leave offerings of tobacco and rum in hopes of currying favor.

It’s not surprising that the miners of Potosí seek divine protection, be it from Jesus on the outside of the mine, or El Tío underground; it is estimated that Cerro Rico and the other Bolivian mines have resulted in 8 million deaths in the last 500 years. So the offerings continue—and so do the casualties.

 “There are places where no matter how high you lift your head you cannot see the top, and looking below you cannot see the bottom; on one side you see a horror, on another a fright, and everything you see in there is all confusion.”
—Bartolome Arzans de Orsua y Vela, History of the Imperial City of Potosí (1703)

The Highest City: A History

The city of Potosí, as shown in THE DEVIL’S MINER, is today a brutal and unforgiving place. Commonly accepted as the highest city in the world—at an elevation of 13,500 feet in the Andes, it’s more than twice as high as Denver, Colorado—the air is thin and the economy even more so.

But throughout most of the second millennium, before Bolivia came into existence and the area was still part of upper Peru, Potosí and its mountain, Cerro Rico, were the site of a “silver rush” that dwarfed the American gold rush. Founded in 1545, the silver deposits there were so rich that within 30 years Potosí was as populous as London and had more inhabitants than Paris.

In Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes coined a phrase still in use today when Quixote exclaimed to Sancho Panza: “Vale un Potosí!" (“It is worth a Potosí!”). The city’s very name was synonymous with wealth worldwide, so much so that cities in Central and South America named themselves Potosí as well.

By the early 19th century, though, Potosí was the site of many battles as the Argentine government attempted to annex the valuable region. In 1825, Bolivia itself was founded and for the next 100 years, tin and lead slowly began to replace silver as the region’s leading mineral export. Falling silver prices further hastened the area’s demise. Today Potosí’s population is dwindling, the mines are much emptier, and much of the population lives in poverty, forcing children to join adults in the increasingly futile search for untapped silver deposits.

Cerro Rico Silver Mines Today

“Mining methods have changed little over the years. The miners still toil from dawn till dusk. Generators pump air into the tunnels so they can breathe. Children still wriggle into tiny places where adults cannot go. Working sometimes for 10 hours or more a day in extreme temperatures, the miners keep going by chewing coca leaves. Two-thirds of the population have respiratory ailments.”		
—Amalia Barron, “Potosí’s Silver Tears”

Today, 9,000 Bolivian miners—including hundreds of children—work in the mines of Cerro Rico, using only primitive protection and equipment. Working in a maze of over 20,000 tunnels, the miners, often referred to as the “scavengers of Cerro Rico,” make it their mission to find any scraps of the valuable minerals overlooked during Spanish rule.

Fatal accidents are frequent and most miners fall victim to the black lung disease by age 40, according to Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, the director/producers of THE DEVIL’S MINER. The children, who put their lives at risk, earn the Bolivian equivalent of $3 for a 12-hour workday. As seen in the film, it takes two months’ salary just to purchase the necessary uniform and supplies to attend school in the region.

In a remote region with no sustainable economy, Cerro Rico looms over the city of Potosí like a god that both gives and takes away life. Without it, the people of Potosí would have nothing; with it, they’re able to eke out a basic existence. But every time they go deep into the earth, they’re never sure if they’ll come out again.

Read about child labor in the mines >>

Learn more about organizations working on eliminating poverty in Bolivia >>

Find out how to get involved >>


Home | The Film | Update | The Mountain | Filmmaker Bios | Filmmaker Q&A | Get Involved | Learn More | Talkback | Site Credits
Get The Video Talkback Learn More Get Involved Filmmaker Q&A Filmmaker Bios Mountain Update The Film THE DEVIL'S MINER