This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s 10th anniversary story, “The Gilded Age” by award-winning reporter Scott Eden. Gold mined in the jungles of Peru brought riches to three friends in Miami—but it also carried ruin.
Scott Eden | The Atavist | January 2021 | 5 minutes (1,352 words)
The Atavist is Longreads‘ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in longform narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a magazine member.
In 1511, the king of Spain gave his New World explorers an order: Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all costs get gold. Humanely was not how it happened.
When gold was discovered on Hispaniola, the native population was forced into serfdom to mine it. Within a few decades, the Taino people had been almost completely “exterminated in the gold mines, in the deadly task of sifting auriferous sands with their bodies half submerged in water,” writes Eduardo Galeano in his seminal book Open Veins of Latin America. Rather than carry on, some of the enslaved people killed their children and then themselves. Francisco Pizarro’s men entered the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the Incan capital in modern-day Peru, and melted down breathtaking works of high-karat art because bars were easier to stack and transport back to Spain. Hernán Cortés did the same after he captured the Aztec treasure house. “They crave gold like hungry swine,” one Aztec observer said of European invaders. A conquistador named Hernán de Quesada, whose brother founded Bogotá almost incidentally while searching for El Dorado, also set off in search of the mythical golden city, taking 6,000 captured natives into the jungles and mountains of what is now Colombia. None survived.
Gold wasn’t the only metal the Spanish wanted. In Quechua, the language of the Inca, the mountain was called Sumaj Orko, “beautiful hill”—a perfectly shaped conical peak made almost entirely of silver that sits in present-day Bolivia. In 1573, colonists began conscripting indigenous people to toil in the mountain’s shafts, working under a form of forced labor known as the mita system. “It was common to bring them out dead or with broken heads and legs,” wrote a contemporary observer. The biggest boomtown in world history, Potosí, grew at the foot of Sumaj Orko; its population at one point rivaled Paris’s. Up to eight million people, many of them children, are estimated to have died working in Potosí’s mines.
Spain was merely a middleman for all the blood metal. The crown used its colonial spoils to pay off the massive debts it had accumulated in Europe’s banking houses. Gold and other precious metals financed the late Renaissance and, next, the industrial revolution.
The pillaging continued, bringing with it other forms of cruelty. In the 18th century, the miners who came to the Minas Gerais region of Brazil during a gold rush were also slave traders; they preferred buying their human beings from the West African slave port of Ouidah, because the people sold there were said to possess magical powers for divining the richest sources of gold. In 1886, after gold was discovered in Tierra del Fuego, a European engineer orchestrated a genocide there, exterminating the Selk’nam people, hunter-gatherers who had lived in the region for millennia. In the 20th century, General Augusto Pinochet abolished the rights of mine workers in Chile’s lucrative high-desert gold and copper pits. Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s murderous spy chief, allegedly took bribes from multinational mining corporations to help them secure control of Yanacocha, which in the 1990s was the world’s most productive gold mine.
By then a new kind of colonist had emerged in Peru. On foot, they came down from the Altiplano, from some of the poorest places on earth, migrating to low-lying rainforests where they’d heard gold was in the ground. They hoped that the tools and skills their forebears had used since time immemorial—shovels, portable sluice boxes—would help them find wealth.
They came to a remote department in the country’s southeast called Madre de Dios—Mother of God—that was covered almost entirely with dense jungle. In time, the new colonists earned enough money to rent heavy equipment. They could dig faster. There were no laws to stop them; squatter’s rights ruled. You took what you wanted. The miners began tearing down forests, clearing the way to search for the glittering flakes that could change a man’s life forever. Or end it.
Peru is the kind of place, in the words of one gold industry participant, ‘where you can do everything right and still get in trouble.’
There once was a sawyer who lived in the rainforest. His name was Alfredo Vracko Neuenschwander, but everyone called him Don Alfredo. He grew up in Madre de Dios. His father, also a logger, was an immigrant from Slovenia, but Don Alfredo treated the forest like he was a native. He took from it only what he and his family—a wife, a daughter, and two sons—needed to survive.
Don Alfredo was tall and slim, and he wore black horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like an Apollo mission engineer. His timber concession, which he obtained in 1975, was located in a part of Madre de Dios called La Pampa. To the west was the high sierra. To the east was the jungle, vaporous and immense. Don Alfredo and his family lived in a small compound—a house and a handful of outbuildings—in a one-hectare clearing he’d hacked out of the jungle. The roofs were thatch. There was no electricity. He’d built everything himself out of the wood—achihua, pashaco, copal, tornillo—found on the roughly 6,000 acres of his concession. His sawmill consisted of wooden poles propping up a metal roof over a large circular saw and an ancient planer manufactured by the American Saw Mill Machinery Co., in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Nearby was an orchard of yucca, papaya, banana, and cupuaçu, a football-shaped fruit with meat prized for its pear-like taste. Fat boas slid under the fruit trees. Flocks of oropendola birds shrieked in the canopy alongside howler monkeys.
For the better part of a decade, starting in 2007, Don Alfredo tried to save his land and the rest of La Pampa from informal gold mining. It was then, and remains today, an industry of wildcatters: people who don’t pay taxes, who don’t bother to seek government licenses or perform environmental-impact studies, who just start digging. Informal mining accounts for as much as 20 percent of the world’s newly extracted gold. In other words, up to one-fifth of the global gold business, worth more than $30 billion a year, according to some estimates, is a black market. And like all black markets, the illegal gold trade is vulnerable to the whole range of organized iniquity: bribery, human trafficking, money laundering, murder for hire, terrorism. The South American gold business is particularly fraught with these dangers, the Peruvian one perhaps most of all. It’s the kind of place, in the words of one industry participant, “where you can do everything right and still get in trouble.”
No one knew the ugly side of Madre de Dios better than Don Alfredo. On a sunny November day in 2015, he waited for the authorities to arrive. At his behest, they’d scheduled an interdiction—the Peruvian National Police would go into the jungle, find a mining site that Don Alfredo had recently reported, chase off or arrest the miners, and destroy their equipment with explosives.
Afternoon turned into evening. The police were delayed. The setting sun flared off the nearby Guacamayo, a stream that runs into the Rio Inambari, which flows into the Rio Madre de Dios (from which the region takes its name), which runs into the Beni, which joins the Mamore, which feeds into the Madeira—a tributary, at last, of the Amazon. Don Alfredo stood on the balcony of his home, listening for the sounds of arrival: the motors of police vehicles turning into his driveway off the Interoceanic Highway, which stretched from Rio de Janeiro to Peru’s Pacific coast. Completed a few years prior, the highway had transformed a series of rude dirt tracks and ancient footpaths into a modern thoroughfare navigable by trucks and heavy equipment, easing the way for miners to infiltrate ever more deeply into Madre de Dios.
Don Alfredo almost certainly would have heard the motorcycles approach, their rumble fainter than the phalanx of police vehicles he’d expected. The two bikes appeared on his property, carrying four riders. The men stopped in the driveway and dismounted. They were carrying guns and wearing black balaclavas.
Don Alfredo opened his mouth to scream.