Armando and I don’t like to take risks. We don’t put ourselves in danger’s way. On reporting trips we sniff out that line and we respect it. I have a partner and young kids. And a big yellow line running down my spine.
I had the luxury of experiencing pants-wetting levels of fear early in my career, when I was single and still protected by my invisible-death-repeller-shield. But I’m older now. And I misplaced the shield during a move some years back.
So we approached this mining story with our usual caution. The illegal mines are a dangerous place. Many of our correspondent colleagues have tried to go in, only to be beaten back or threatened at gunpoint. Peruvian journalists have it even harder. But our fixer on the ground, Edison “Cebiche” Huaman, had a connection.
We sent him to the mines days before we arrived in Peru. He met with the miner we ended up profiling, Alberto Perez, and more importantly, with Perez’s boss, Joaquin. Upon hearing what we wanted to do, Joaquin granted us permission to enter his mine, or “hole.” Without that permission, going in would have been plain stupid.
Still, we couldn’t just stroll in waving a permission slip. There are thousands of miners in the forest, many of whom you wouldn’t bring home for dinner: gang members, crooks, killers, thieves. The mines are known as a place to make money but also as a place to hide.
Our plan: to enter under cover of darkness. This was the key to getting past watchful eyes at “La Pista,” the roadside, tin-roofed settlement at the entrance to the mines. We blew past it as fast as we could, heads down: just another group of miners catching a motorcycle ride to work. An hour later we pulled up to Alberto Perez’s tarp shelter and promptly hid all our gear, and ourselves, inside.
The safety measures didn’t end there. We had permission to enter Joaquin’s hole, but not to visit the hundreds of holes surrounding it. We spent three days keeping as low a profile as possible. Armando had his cameras pointed at (almost) all times toward Perez and Joaquin and the small-sized lake they’d cut into the forest floor. But even so word got out quickly that some “gringos” were around.
That’s when we deployed our final safety maneuver. It was Armando’s idea. We’d made plans to be picked up in the afternoon by the same motorcycle drivers who’d brought us in. But Armando worried that they might be hatching a plot to assault us on the way out. They’d had three days to mull over the value of his gear. Who could tell whether that small fortune would be too tempting for them to resist? Cebiche wrestled up a different group of drivers and we left a couple of hours early.
We felt bad ditching out on the guys we’d signed up with. But we would have felt a lot worse walking out of the jungle without our gear, our clothes, our documentary.