The men look at me. “All of this is the same age,” one of them replies. “We have been here since the beginning. All of this is five months old.”
A manager of the operation grants us permission to conduct a few interviews, but in the end the only miner who cooperates is a 50-something, heavyset man with thick black hair. He declines to give his name. He comes from the Andean highlands, he tells us, where his family lives. He often works in Huepetuhe.
“The money is good,” he says. “I work. I go home.”
“Is this a good job?” I ask.
“No, but I have raised five children in this way. Two work in tourism. One is an accountant. Another has just finished business school and another is in business school. My children have moved past a job like this.”
At last, we get into our cars. Now, behind us, Huepetuhe is visible only as a wide slash of brown and gray inside mountainous green jungle.
Among the people trying to improve living and working conditions in the hellish, Hieronymus Bosch world of the gold fields are Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos and his wife, Ana Hurtado Abad, who run an organization that provides shelter and education for children and adolescents. The couple started the group Association Huarayo, named for the area’s indigenous people, 14 years ago. One of their first charges was a 12-year-old orphan named Walter who had been abandoned at a mine site. They adopted and raised him, and Walter is now a 21-year-old college student.
With children being sent alone to the gold fields, to be exploited as service workers, often in kitchens, Association Huarayo built a safe house where children could live and be cared for. “There are no other places where these young people can find safety,” Guadalupe says. “Our budget is low, but we survive thanks to the work of many, many volunteers.”
Two nights ago, he tells me, authorities from nearby mining settlements brought 20 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 to the safe house. “They just arrived,” Guadalupe says. “We are worried about feeding them all, housing them, finding them school.”
“What about their families?” I ask.