Framework

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People come from throughout the region to La Rinconada, despite the brutal weather conditions, to seek their fortune as gold miners. Dangers abound, both outside of the mines and within them. Safety equipment is minimal, and inspections and oversight are nonexistent.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

In this modern-day Deadwood, it's a cash economy with few places to spend it. There is no established law enforcement, and stabbings are common as miners drink and fight over prostitutes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

The population has doubled in the last four years as the price of an ounce of gold has risen above $1,400 an ounce. Newly built corrugated-metal shacks litter the landscape as you approach Rinconada.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

The city sits at the edge of a rapidly shrinking glacier.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Juan Carita Chamba, his face etched by hard labor at high altitude, has worked in Rinconada for 20 years but does not venture into the mines anymore.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Mercury is used to separate the gold from the stones and then simply discarded, contaminating the environment -- including the glacier that is the source of water for a vast area of southeastern Peru.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Electricity and cellphone service are reliable, but there is no sewage system or trash collection. Despite harsh conditions, the city's population keeps growing.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Workers climb a steep shale mountainside, looking through the detritus of the tunnels, hoping to find scraps of gold overlooked by the miners.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Women endure some of the most difficult working conditions. Twelve-hour days are not uncommon, as well as long climbs up loose shale with a sack of stones on one's back.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

As her daughter plays atop the rocks, a woman sorts through rock and shale, hoping for a few grams of gold. There are multiple generations of families now who call the city home.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

A school was built, three years ago, on the outskirts of town. The one wish of the school's director is that none of the children grow up to be miners.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

There are ample supplies of alcohol available in La Rinconada "bar district." The local doctor says many injuries occur when drunken miners fall on the city's treacherous streets.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

The alcoholism rate is high in La Rinconada. With cash, boredom and case after case of contraband beer, the result is frequent public drunkenness.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Rising temperatures have made rain more common than snow. The cold penetrates to the bone.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Shacks are going up all over La Rinconada to house new arrivals, of which there are many. The promise of riches is tempting to those migrating from impoverished rural areas.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Workers pull a piece of machinery through the city's streets. Few places in Peru can offer the earnings that La Rinconada can. Doctors and lawyers have abandoned their practices to work in the mines.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

The glacier has retreated amid rising temperatures and the onslaught of miners carving holes in the mountainside and operating machinery around the clock.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

La Rinconada was once a solitary outpost for men, but women and families now have a presence. Some miners would like government services, but that would mean paying taxes and having the state formalize the economy.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

The streets of La Rinconada are a quagmire of contamination. A malodorous mixture of sewage, garbage and mercury line the muddy paths that wander through the city.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Miners, deep in a tunnel, settle in for a quick meal between shifts. Despite the frustration of hunting for gold, many miners stay for years.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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Gold fever in La Rinconada

View the audio slideshow from La Rinconada

La Rinconada, dwarfed by a glacier in the Peruvian Andes, draws workers from throughout the Andean nations searching for gold. This city, said to be the highest in the world, is bereft of law, government, warmth and color. No tree, bush or blade of grass can find life. Black and gray paths, contaminated with sewage and mercury, ooze between corrugated-metal buildings. The surging price of gold has caused the population to double in the last five years, to about 50,000, according to Juan Pablo Carita Chambi, who oversees disputes in the barrios that surround La Rinconada’s gold mines. Until recently, those disputes were settled violently, and there were few women and children living here. Although the city is still lawless, citizens have stepped in to settle conflicts, and the streets are a bit safer during the day. Families walk the soggy roads, and a school has been erected. But after dark, fights break out, and stabbings are common. Angel Cotacallapa, who worked with NGOs in the city for years, says there are about a dozen deaths per month, half of them homicides. Other hazards include altitude, cold and the poisonous gases that hide in small chambers within the gold mines. “You walk into the mines, and you don’t notice the smell or anything,” explains 22-year-old supervisor Oscar Cruz Canahuile, who works the mines with his brother Carlos. “You start to get a low fever … a headache. And then you fall down, and your nervous system is not responding. You fall, and you die right there.”

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