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  • “Near each tin mine in the arid, poverty-ridden nation of Bolivia, where the 12,000-foot altitude makes breathing difficult, stands a large, bleak, and fully visible graveyard. The graveyard is a symbol of the condition of the miner, who is responsible for 88 percent of Bolivian exports and whose life expectancy is 29 years. It may also become a symbol of the nation.”

    So opens Thompson’s National Observer story from October 15, 1962, about the turbulent fall and possible rise of the Bolivian mining industry. Nationalized in 1953 and plagued with strikes and labor difficulties, the Bolivian tin industry — then the country's life-blood — was relying on a US aid program to get it back on its feet. Along with since-discovered petroleum and natural gas, minerals are still the country's major export. To get a feel for the industry, I went to the southern city of Potosi, where the Spaniards' discovery of silver in 1545 kicked off a Bolivian mineral boom that's never really ended, a boom that made Potosi one of the world's biggest cities by the end of the sixteenth century.

    In Potosi, throughout the labyrinthine mines riddling a mountain called Cerro Rico, the locals are still unearthing tin, zinc, and some low-grade silver, but the wealth dried up long ago. Today's miners work in small cooperatives, earning maybe $70 in a good week. Tourism complements this, with a number of guides in town leading small groups on claustrophobic, low-frills tours of the working caverns. I headed into the mines last week with a couple of Argentinean girls, a pair of Israelis, a German/Portuegese couple, and a Brit.

    The main thing I learned in an afternoon underground is that mining in Potosi involves a staggering amount of drinking. Before heading up the hill, we were ushered through the nearby markets and asked to buy gifts for the workers we'd meet in the tunnels — essentially to buy their attention. Beer and coca were the preferred currency. Since it was Saturday, explained our guide (a miner himself), most of his compatriots would be taking the afternoon off from their usual beverage, a straight cane alcohol sold in plastic bottles and weighing in at 96% ABV. I tried a shot, at the guide's urging, then another. It numbed my tongue and burned like bleach going down. Each of us bought four cans of beer, and I threw in a bag of coca leaves for good measure.

    Underground we met Pablo, a chatty and corpulent lifer, father of ten and third-generation miner. He was crouched on a ledge in a high-clearance chamber, working a vein of tin, but more than happy happy to rest his chisel while we plied him with questions and beer. Working for the cooperatives was better than when the mines were nationalized, he said. The miners set their own hours now, and they negotiate their prices. In the old days, the government would extract their equipment costs straight from their pay. Sure, a good chunk of their profits still went to carts, drills, lamps, and the rest. And yes, after that and the alcohol, there wasn't much leftover. "But this is the job we know how to do," Pablo shrugged. "And a lot of people out there don't even have jobs." He gestured vaguely into the darkness and poured some beer into his mineral sack, for good luck.

    After another couple beers, Pablo mentioned that silicosis is a problem. Not too many miners live past their forties. Explosive gases used to be bad too, back in the days before ventilation. And there's the occasional dynamite accident, of course, although Potosi miners don't worry much about being trapped ("you know, like those Chileans"). The mountain has too many holes, too many connecting tunnels, too many entrances and exits. "If there's a cave-in," Pablo explained, "we just sit and drink for a while, maybe tell some jokes. Then we find our way out."

    "Yes," he said at one point, setting down another empty can. "Alcohol is good. Although I don't usually drink beer — too many chemicals."

    He prefers, of course, the miner's cane spirits, chemically similar to antifreeze.

    The real drinking began a few hours later, at a cinderblock sorting facility in the shadow of the mountain. There, on a sparse patio festooned with empty bottles, the miners drank and laughed, drank and crushed tin in aging electric mills. A smiling, staggering assistant handed us turistas a round of beers in tall bottles, and the German said out loud what everyone had been thinking. "I guess if I had their life, I'd probably drink this much too."

    The next day I went to the large cemetery at the edge of town, a spot that the tourists tend to avoid. Like many cemeteries in Latin America, Potosi's is a collection of what are called columbaria, small courtyards surrounded by walls containing cremated remains. Each wall is a grid of crematory niches, with a plaque for each of the deceased and a small shelf for tribute.

    The first columbarium I came to was dedicated to one of the miners' cooperatives. "Here rest those who left their lungs in the mines," said a mural on the exterior. Inside, almost every niche contained a picture of a miner in his Sunday best, some flowers in various stages of wilt, and a few small, plastic replicas of beer and liquor bottles.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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