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Child Miners: Searching for Justice

Now grown up, Jorge has escaped the mine and wants to protect his friend Alex, accused of a crime he says he did not do.

Last updated: 17 Feb 2014 15:27
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This is the fifth film Rodrigo Vazquez has made about childhood friends Alex and Jorge, having started filming them eight years ago as they began their working lives in the tin mines of Llallagua in Bolivia.

When we meet them again, Alex is still working on the mine, while Jorge has left this work and joined the police to work for the special operations unit (UTOP). He hopes to be able to help his friend, Alex, who is in considerable financial debt owing to an accusation of the murder of a fellow miner. 

Although now freed from jail and on parole, Alex still has to work to pay his lawyer and is continuing with a case to prove his innocence through a blood test. Jorge is trying to help him - and would one day like to train as a lawyer himself.

The blood test is finally taken but the results are taking months to come through. Alex cannot move on until his innocence is proved and his bills are paid. After that he would like to join the army.

Through the years, the boys' friendship endures.

Filmmaker's view

By Rodrigo Vazquez

Alex spends his days searching for tin and zinc, sweating in the heat of a deep mine in southern Bolivia. He is 18-years-old. When I first met him he was nine.

Like the vast majority of the miners in Llallagua, he is a Quechua Indian, and like many children working in the mines, he has no father. His dad died 10 years ago from the respiratory lung disease silicosis.

"I go to the mine because my dad died, because we need the money to eat,” is the first thing Alex said to me.

Alex had given up on a life outside the mines already. Eight years later, we are walking up the same mountain where I first filmed Alex. He turns to me and says: "I'll work here all my life, I think. I'm already used to it."

Most people would be terrified to walk inside one of these mines. They are scary places. Miners slide down narrow tunnels full of choking dust to reach the lower levels. If dynamite explosions, collapsing tunnels, or poisonous gases do not kill a miner, silicosis eventually will. Protective equipment consists of nothing more than a headlamp and rubber boots.

I first met child miners Alex Choque and Jorge Mollinedo in December 2005, when Bolivia’s first indigenous President Evo Morales won the elections. Morales promised to give miners a better life by re-nationalising the industry. But Jorge had to increase his work-load to keep bringing food to his family’s table.

Newly-arrived Cuban doctors sent by Morales' government established that he had begun developing silicosis and advised him to stop working immediately.

For centuries, the city of Llallagua has operated around the Siglo 20 Mine, a huge deposit of minerals first exploited by the Spanish Empire. While indigenous and African slaves died by the thousands doing this work, minerals from the mines filled the Spanish treasury for more than 200 years. Jorge liked to say you could build a silver bridge to Spain with all the metal extracted from their mountains.

When I next met Jorge in 2007, he had become a conscript in the Bolivian Army, which made him more disciplined and gave him a sense of mission. He said he wanted to represent the voice of the poor somehow. During holidays, Jorge went back to the mine and gathered groups of other child miners to talk about the health risks. He even sang hip-hop tunes about it.

But Alex, his best friend, was now 11, and was not doing well at all. Alex’s mother forced him to work in order to feed the family single-handedly. Jorge tried to make her understand that this could kill Alex before he reached the age of 40. The fact was that many children in Llallagua had few options but to follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines.

The same is true today. NGO Cepromin estimates that out of 8,000 miners in the area, 10 percent are under 18 years of age, the legal minimum age to work in a mine. In 2004, UNICEF reported there were nearly 4,000 workers under 18 in Bolivia's mining centres. There is little political will to prevent Alex and others his age from joining the mining ranks. And there is no social welfare safety net for families such as Alex’s, which have lost their only breadwinner.

For the last three years, Jorge and Alex have led completely different lives. Jorge has become a policeman while Alex has been in and out of jail accused of killing a miner. Alex’s family says that he has been wrongly accused and that he didn’t commit the crime. Jorge believes him.

The paradox in this story is that Jorge is now serving at the Huanuni Police HQ, where he has been ordered to stem crime from the increasingly violent streets. This includes being at the front of riot-police lines in full gear. And most of the violence comes from miners high on drugs and alcohol.

Jorge has always been determined to get his best friend Alex away from mining and an early death due to silicosis. But now the challenge is steeper. Together with Alex’s lawyer, Jorge will need to help prove Alex’s innocence if he is to help his friend, without compromising his work as a policeman.

The last memory I have of Alex is of him walking into the mine for the night shift. He is forced to work double shifts to pay off his lawyer. He averages $150 a month in wages.

In Pictures:

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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