Foreign Policy Blogs

The Devil’s Miner (2005)


“The mountain that eats men.”

That is what Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) is called.

The mountain in Potosi, Bolivia has yielded a tremendous amount of silver since the Spanish empire began mining it hundreds of years ago.

This documentary follows the daily life of 14 year-old Basilio Vargas, who works long shifts in the silver mines.

It is brutal work and there is the ever present danger of tunnels collapsing.

Aside from pneumatic drills, the work is done mainly by hand.

There is also an interesting cult in the mines revolving around an entity known as “Tio.” Basilio says the name came about when the Spaniards tried to get the local natives to worship God (“Dios”) but the letter “D” doesn’t exist in the Quechua language.

Tio is a statue of something that looks demonic, with horns on its head and glowing red eyes. The miners offer tribute to Tio – coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol – to keep him from hurting or killing them.

It is interesting to note how the miners worship God on the outside of the mines but Tio inside — even the local priest is resigned to that fact.

Many of the workers develop silicosis as a result of being exposed to the dust in the mines, and most don’t live past 40 years old.

Millions of people have lived and died in the mines with the current conditions not very different from the ones faced by the indigenous people who were slaves to the Spanish.

The miners ward off hunger and fatigue by chewing coca leaves. That is part of the reason why South American people don’t understand the focus by the United States to eradicate the coca leaf in its war on drugs.

Basilio also attends school and hopes his education will be his ticket out of the mines. He doesn’t want to wind up a relatively young man coughing up blood and dying from silicosis.

His younger brother tags along and Basilio shows him the ropes.

There is constant danger with ore carts being run through the tunnels at breakneck speed.

Basilio lives with his mother and younger siblings in a shack on the side of the mountain. He and his mother bring in just about enough to get by.

It is a big day when Basilio gets a haircut and new clothes for school.

At school he is quiet and reserved. He is afraid his classmates will make fun of him for being poor and working in the mines.

The filmmakers show a llama being sacrificed and its blood painted over the entrance to the mines as part of a combined pagan and Christian ceremony to bless the mines and ward off evil spirits.

The work is hard, dangerous, and doesn’t pay well but is something an unskilled teenager can do.

This is an excellent documentary as it focuses on Basilio’s life and the lives of everyone who works the mines. The camera often follows Basilio into the mines and shows the claustrophobic and dangerous conditions in which he works.

The Devil’s Miner is available to rent.

Murphy can be reached at: [email protected]

  • Jose

    In a globalized world, it is important to
    understand the cultural values, beliefs, and realities lived by people in other
    countries. I find this type of
    documentary very important for those who live seemingly sheltered lives,
    remaining unaware of how the rest of the world lives. As a teacher in Texas, I see kids walk in and
    out of classrooms paying little attention to what their education can help
    them accomplish. Dropping out of High
    School and never stepping into a college campus is an all too common choice for
    many Hispanic teens in the United States. For kids like Basilio, education can
    potentially make the difference between life and death.


Sean Patrick Murphy
Sean Patrick Murphy

Sean Patrick Murphy is a graduate of Bennington College, where he majored in politics and Latin American literature. He has worked for Current History magazine, Physicians for Human Rights, and Citizens for Global Solutions (formerly the World Federalist Association). He lives outside Philadelphia.

Areas of Focus:
Cinematography; Independent Films; Documentary;