People arrive in La Paragua, after leaving La Bulla Loca mine, which collapsed, in Bolivar state, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. The collapse of the illegally operated open-pit gold mine in a remote area of central Venezuela killed at least 16 people. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

LA PARAGUA, Venezuela (AP) — Osvaldo Romero and his wife got off a battered boat Friday under the scorching sun of central Venezuela and walked up the bank of a river barefoot, their pants soaking wet and eyes showing the shock of having faced days earlier one of the country’s deadliest mining disasters.

He carried a few belongings they had wrapped with plastic and rope, and as residents of the community of La Paragua approached him, he said he regretted having worked at the remote mine where greed and callousness were king and queen.

“That is the worst mine I have ever worked in,” said Romero, who has been a miner for 10 years. He had been working at the collapsed Bulla Loca mine until Thursday, when he and his wife, without any money or gold to show for their hard work since January, hopped on the boat.

“They were removing the injured from the rubble, and they were still taking gold out. That’s unconscionable,” he said.

The collapse of the open-pit gold mine that killed at least 16 people has underscored the dangers of working in a poorly regulated industry. But it has also shown the crucial role that mining plays in the survival of thousands of people who take a gamble and create quasi-cities, complete with bingo and raffles, around mines in hopes of earning what other parts of the troubled country cannot give them.

Venezuela’s government does not have an accurate count of people who were living at the site of the mine, but several miners who have worked there estimate that at least 3,000 people, including children, were in Bulla Loca at any given time since December. On Thursday, several privately operated boats arrived in La Paragua with people who had given up on their dreams of gold. Among them was a 2-week-old baby boy who was born at the mine.

The community that formed around the mine includes clothing stores, restaurants, convenience stores and an evangelical church all built out of wood and tarps. Some stores also sell metered WiFi.

Businesses organize bingo nights with televisions and loudspeakers as on-site prizes as well as raffles with motorcycles and cars as grand prizes that must be picked up in La Paragua. Alcohol though is banned.

Food and other items are priced in gold and so are transportation costs to and from the mine. After Tuesday’s disaster, some boat operators were charging 2 grams of gold per person each way. That’s about $80, given the lower quality of Bulla Loca’s gold compared to that of other Venezuelan mines.

Some of those returning to La Paragua Thursday brought back 2-liter soda bottles, bags of rice and flour and canned goods. They also brought back the shovels they used at work. Without tiny pieces of gold in their pockets, some lined up under a military tent where volunteers with a local church handed out oatmeal and cachitos, a Venezuelan savory pastry.

“We left out of fear and brought back nothing. Nothing,” Dairely Ruiz said. “We haven’t even eaten since yesterday.”

As Ruiz and others continued to arrive, Angel Marcano, the governor of the state of Bolivar, where the mine is located, said the number of deaths in the tragedy remained at 16, which miners and area residents consider an undercount in part because Indigenous people who lost relatives in the collapse are retrieving their bodies and burying them in their remote communities without notifying the government.

Manuel Tirado, an Indigenous man of the Colibrí community, told The Associated Press he lost his son and son-in-law in the collapse. Neither was taken to a morgue or buried in the cemetery in La Paragua.

“I took him out of the mine and buried him in my community,” Tirado said of his son Reynaldo.

Venezuela’s government in 2016 established a huge mining development zone stretching across the central area of the country to supplement flagging revenue from its dominant oil industry, which has seen production decline to near its lowest levels in decades as a result of mismanagement, corruption and, more recently, U.S. sanctions.

Since then, mining operations for gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals have proliferated. Many are wildcat mines, operating on the margins of the law.

Despite brutal conditions and the presence of criminal gangs, ordinary Venezuelans continue to flock to mining centers in hopes of getting rich quick and escaping crushing poverty.

As he walked away from the river, Romero said he will have to sell the motorcycle and car he kept in La Paragua while he worked away to recover his losses from his two moths in Bulla Loca.

“But I have to thank God because I am walking even if it’s barefoot,” Romero said.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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