Gold fever in La Rinconada

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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.”