As world’s attention moves on, miners return to humble lives
COPIAPO, Chile – Carlos Bugueno is out of the collapsed mine but still lives in close quarters, sharing his small wood-and-tin house with 16 relatives. His family welcomed him home by lining the street with white plastic bags filled with air – they had no money for balloons.
Despite donations and the promise of book and movie deals, most of the 33 Chilean miners trapped for more than two months have returned to lives of struggle in improvised homes, often in gang-ridden neighborhoods lacking basic services. Some worry it won’t get better.
“Three months from now, what will I be doing? Selling candy on the beach? Wondering what the government has done for us? Nothing,” said Edison Pena. “I’m very afraid, and I would like for things to change.”
All but one of the miners have been released from the hospital since their rescue Wednesday from the San Jose gold and copper mine, where they had been trapped nearly a half-mile underground since the Aug. 5 collapse. Most returned to the mine Sunday for a Mass at the makeshift camp where their relatives had waited for them.
“It’s nice to be here where our families were,” said Luis Urzua, the shift foreman who has been praised for leading the trapped miners through the 69-day ordeal, especially in the first 17 days when they had no contact with the outside world and just a 48-hour emergency food supply.
The camp on a barren hill in Chile’s northern Atacama region is rapidly being dismantled. A few tents, some media motor homes and cars remain. So do 33 Chilean flags representing the miners and the flags of the U.S., Canada and Argentina, which aided in the fast-paced drilling operation that saved the men.
Miner Carlos Barrios’ family was busy Sunday taking apart their encampment, which was among the first built at Camp Hope.
“I feel sorry (to leave) but at the same time I’m happy because I’m with my son again,” his stepmother Griselda Godoy said while packing up their camp stove.
Pulled from the mine one by one in a custom-built capsule, the miners emerged as international celebrities, complete with high-end sunglasses that shielded their eyes from sun and work lights after months in darkness. Many are still wearing the sunglasses, but their lives have become less glamorous.
Many have returned to poverty in the hardscrabble neighborhoods that climb the hills around Copiapo, the Atacama region’s gritty capital. Some have strained relationships with the families who held vigil, praying for their survival. All face a search for work since the mine that employed them has filed for bankruptcy.
Miner Carlos Mamani lives in a small green wooden house on an unpaved road in Padre Negro, a neighborhood on a hill where the glittering street lights of Copiapo stretch out like a carpet. But Padre Negro’s 38 houses lack access to sewers and running water. Mamani and his neighbors must walk for blocks to two public taps to get water and then carry it back up the hill.
“This area is dangerous at night. Drugs are sold here and there is theft. I’ve lived here for a while and I still have to be careful to avoid problems,” said one of Mamani’s neighbors, 15-year-old Jose Vadillo.
Some miners live closer to central Copiapo, in a neighborhood where gangs mark their territory with old sneakers hanging from electricity poles. Bugueno is among those living in Tiltil Bajo, a neighborhood of wood-and-tin houses that lack sewage connections.
Chile’s government has promised to look out for the rescued miners, and each has about $12,000 in donations waiting for them in bank accounts, but their futures remain uncertain. Seven of the miners held a news conference Saturday to plead for job training and government benefits. They also pleaded for privacy, citing the media’s treatment of fellow miners Johnny Barrios and Claudio Yanez.
Barrios’ wife and mistress, who live a block from each other, both arrived at the mine following the Aug. 5 collapse that trapped them, launching a high-profile soap opera. The wife accepted his donations, while Barrios went home with the mistress.
Yanez’s strained relationships were on display when the media waited outside his mother’s house, where his family had prepared a welcome-home party and he didn’t show up. He went instead to the home of the mother of his two children, a woman he proposed marriage to while underground. Yanez’s sister, cameras in tow, later threw a rock at the woman’s house and yelled that he can forget having his family to support him.
The miners are getting substantial offers of money for their story, but they made a pact to say little about their ordeal while negotiating movie and book rights. They even hired an accountant while underground to track and share the proceeds, their friend, shift foreman Pablo Ramirez, told the Associated Press.
“It’s true that we made a pact of silence not to speak of those topics until we think the moment has come,” miner Pablo Rojas said Sunday.
“All that will come out later. As a group, we’re thinking about putting out a book, and that will tell everything,” said Ariel Ticona, whose daughter Esperanza – Spanish for hope – was born during his entrapment.
Some of the men have new job opportunities. Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player who drove trucks at the San Jose mine, is wanted by the world soccer body FIFA to give motivational talks, Chilean soccer director Harold Mayne-Nicholls said. Mamani, a Bolivian and the only non-Chilean among the miners, has been offered a job by Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Omar Reygadas is among the rescued miners who say they will keep on working in mines.
“It is my work. It is my way of earning pesos,” he said. “I am a mole, and I’m happy when I am underground.”
The San Jose mine is inoperable following the cave-in, and its owners have declared bankruptcy, but the rescued miners have been offered jobs with larger mining operations with better safety records – most of them far away from where they live now.
As concerned as some of the rescued miners are about what happens next, more than 300 former co-workers who were not trapped also are out of work.
These miners threatened Sunday to occupy a “Camp Hope II” in protest until they get their severance payments. They fear that if they take other jobs now, they could lose all the acquired pay and benefits the law entitles them to receive.