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No one can agree how high above the sea level that La Rinconada really lies at: 5,300 meters or 5,200 meters? On the access road, a metal plate says 5,015. But who really cares? It is indisputably the highest settlement in the world; a gold mining town, a concentration of misery, a community of around 70,000 inhabitants, many of whom have been poisoned by mercury. A place where countless women and children get regularly raped, where law and order collapsed quite some time ago, where young girls are sent to garbage dumps in order to 'recycle' terribly smelling waste, and where almost all the men work in beastly conditions, trying to save at least some money, but where most of them simply ruin their health, barely managing to stay alive.
I decided to travel to La Rinconada precisely during these days when the socialist Venezuela is fighting for its survival. I drove there as the European elites in Bolivia were trying to smear the enormously popular and successful President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, while the elections were approaching.
As in so many places in the turbo-capitalist and pro-Western Peru, La Rinconada is like a tremendous warning: this is how Venezuela and Bolivia used to be before Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. This is where Washington wants the entire Latin America to return to. Like those monstrous and hopeless slums surrounding Lima, La Rinconada should be a call to arms.
Just some five years ago we thought: This is how Latin America was never supposed to look again. We thought so, before the extreme right-wing forces in Washington managed to regroup and to deploy old dogmas of the Monroe Doctrine back to the frontlines, against Latin American independence and socialism.
A driver refused to take me to La Rinconada, alone. For me, the fewer people involved the better. Even in Afghanistan, I work alone, only with my trusted Pashtun driver. But here it is different: the reputation of La Rinconada is that "you can enter, but you will never manage to leave." I am told about the new mafia that operates there, and about the totally deteriorating security situation. In the end, I had no choice but to accept a crew of two men: a driver and a person "who is familiar with the situation related to Peruvian mines".
We leave the city of Puno in the morning, passing along the magnificent shores of Lake Titicaca, which with a surface elevation of 3,812 meters, is the highest navigable lake in the world, shared by Peru and Bolivia.
"From the Peruvian side, the lake is getting poisoned by mercury," explained Freddy, a mining expert. "La Rinconada and its gold mines are still very far, but the River Ramis is now bringing contaminated water from the area, particularly from the mining town of Ananea, directly into the lake."
There is some sort of a motorway between Puno and Juliaca, a 'center of commercial activity' in the region; in fact, a huge, unkempt dusty city full of slums. Right after Juliaca, it is just rural misery.
I used to work in Peru during the so called 'Dirty War', fought between two Communist guerillas (the Maoist Shining Path and the Marxist, pro-Cuban MRTA) and the Peruvian state, which officially ended in 1992. Since then, the rural misery of Peru has not changed: dwellings made of earth, the desperate faces of villagers, and almost no social services, have remained. Right across the border, in socialist Bolivia, life in the countryside improves dramatically, continuously. But not here; not in Peru. And so, tents of thousands of anxious men are 'going up', reaching tremendous heights, risking their lives and ruining their heath, for at least a tiny chance to find gold, and to escape the endemic misery.
"My wife saved me," I was told by a driver who, two days earlier, took me from the Bolivian border of Desaguadero, to the Peruvian city of Puno:
"I was totally broke. We just had a baby. I had no idea what to do. And so, I told my family that I am going to La Rinconada. My wife stood up and said: 'If you go, you will never return. And if you do, you will not be the man that I love, anymore. You stay in Puno and work here. I will work, too. We will somehow manage. Don't you know: La Rinconada is a death sentence.' I stayed. She was right. I saw people who went and came back totally destroyed."
It is getting cold. Our Toyota Hilux climbs up, grumpily, with badly damaged suspension, but going nevertheless. The higher we climb, the colder it gets. It rains, then it stops.
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