Colombian gold miners die for little

Saturday, November 24, 2001

FILADELFIA, Colombia -- They knew it was risky work, but for the miners who died in a mudslide in the Andes, finding a few specks of gold was the difference between eating and going hungry.

While emergency crews dug for bodies Friday, people talked of the perilous prospecting that killed at least 37 miners a day earlier when a hillside gave way and swept over them. Officials said 37 others were missing and feared dead.

Authorities had shut the site as a commercial mine earlier this year because erosion made it unstable, but the freelance miners moved in and began working it themselves. Good jobs are scarce in the region and people do whatever they can to earn money for their families.

Urias Romero talked of the hard times while waiting for news about his missing wife.

As he watched as rescuers pulled body after body from clammy brown earth, a corpse was carried to the Cauca River, where the coating of mud was rinsed away.

"My wife, wife!" Romero shrieked when he recognized his wife, Luz Marina, then fell to his knees and sobbed.

She had gone to the mine despite his warnings that it was unsafe.

"I told her not to go because it was very dangerous," Romero said after regaining his composure. "But she told me we needed the money to be able to feed the children."

Living by lottery

Romero said his job selling lottery tickets didn't bring in enough to support their six children.

This area in western Caldas state is rich in gold, but much of it is excavated by crude methods -- by pick and shovel, and with little regard for engineering or safety.

The region had depended on coffee for its livelihood, but a plunge in world prices devastated the local economy. Thousands of people became gold diggers from desperation.

"Coffee is not delivering," said Luis Antonio Loaiza, a 22-year-old former coffee picker who survived the mudslide. "We have to risk our lives, because sometimes we find gold."

The prospectors live a no-madic existence, moving from site to site, entire families at a time, scraping out what gold they can find while waiting for news of another discovery.

Prosecutors are investigating whether there was criminal responsibility in Thursday's accident. Although the site had been recently condemned, its owners allegedly allowed the miners to continue working.

Miners were using earthmovers left at the site along with picks and shovels to dig huge clumps of rock and dirt from the side of the hill. They would take the material to the edge of the river and try to separate out small particles of gold using wood-frame sieves and pans.

Many of those who died were inside a large hole they had dug into the side of a hill. The mudslide caved in the hole, which had no structural supports.

"It was unbelievable," said Raul Guzman, 27, one of the 200 or so miners working in the pit. "We were making a clearing to take out the gold when it began crumbling and crumbling, until the entire hill fell down."

Guzman said he had been working for a month at the site, which is 120 miles west of the capital, Bogota.

Officials said they had tried to discourage the dangerous mining. Filadelfia's mayor, Roman Aristizabal, said police evicted some of the miners from another illegal mining site two weeks ago.

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