A ‘splashdown’ is an evasion technique used by narco-traffickers when crossing the border of Mexico and the United States. When the traffickers are discovered then pursued, they race to the Rio Grande and deliberately drive their cocaine or marijuana laden pickup trucks straight into the river. The resultant crash causes a ‘Splash’. The traffickers then swim to the Mexican bank of the river and the bales of narcotics float away from the American border patrols and back into the hands of waiting co-smugglers. I’m reminded of this as I study a large white pickup truck parked in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It’s more tank than car. A gas guzzling leviathan with an engine more appropriate for a tractor. It sits atop of 4 bulky, black tyres, has black tinted windows and sparkling mirrored chrome covering the hub caps, bumper and front grill. Its impressive and unlike in Britain where anyone can gain credit for a new car, a new pickup truck still reflects a level of prosperity in Mexico.
Its March 2009 and I’m three months into my latest job as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. I’ve started to smoke again and I’m dragging on a fag outside my school. In the UK you would be discouraged from smoking outside your place of work, but my current boss actively encourages it. She figures the sight of gringo teachers smoking outside the school is better advertisement than any Facebook advertisement or flyer. My franchised language school is part of large shopping complex named Plaza Sendero in an area called ‘Industrias’ which sits in the middle of a zone of factories, units and Industrial buildings all involved with the international automotive industry.
One of my fellow teachers, Andrew, a gregarious, young American from Portland spies me through the glass, front door of the school and joins me outside.
‘Hey man, you wanna go to the ghost town’ he asks.
‘Ghost town?’ I reply.
‘Yeah man, one of my students is a manager at the San Pedro mine just outside the city. He says It’s also a ghost town, like the movies’
Normally I wouldn’t be interested in a tour of a ghost town or a mine, but I’d been stuck in the city since arrival and needed to escape the city and explore.
‘Cool man, I’ve got classes until 5 though’ I answer.
‘Me too man, ideal’ he replies before slipping back into the school.
At 5pm I meet Andrew outside the school. We are joined by Robert, a fellow English teacher from Germany and Carlos the manager of the mine. Carlos is a short man in his mid-fifties. His shirt is pressed and starched, but his jeans are baggy and oversized. His slicked black hair and tinted glasses make him appear like a hybrid of Joe Pesci and Diego Maradona. He seems quiet and unassertively ushers us to the large, white pickup that I’d been previously admiring. Robert and I clamber into the back seats while Andrew sits shotgun in front. Carlos starts the tank’s engine then quickly gets us onto the neighbouring highway and roaring past the traffic.
With every kilometre we seem to slink back a decade. The massive highways taper into single carriages then brittle, dusty roads. Buildings become more decrepit and dilapidated, the moisture starved foliage browner and the painted wall advertisements for potato chips and petrol more faded and ignored. As we turn into a dirt road an old man sitting atop a homemade, horse drawn cart crosses the road. Carlos thumps his car horn to clear the way and reaffirm his technological superiority. San Pedro is only 10 minutes outside San Luis but in that time, we have retreated 100 years.
Cerro San Pedro which translates as the Hill of Saint Peter is the ghost town. It feels like we have driven onto a film set. Spanish Franciscan monks arrived around here in 1592, found gold and silver and remained until their language, religion and corruption were embedded so deep that they would never leave. The productivity of the mine created its neighbouring city and contributed to Spain’s dominance over Latin America for the following centuries. Most of the buildings are dilapidated and crumbling like broken pieces of shortbread. The sandy roads are buckled and badly maintained. You could imagine Pancho Villa galloping down these broken streets, firing his rifle in the air to inspire revolution a century before. Little seems to have changed since those times save modern cars and the tangled electricity wires and street lamps above. The main plaza contains an overgrown garden of agave plants and weedy grass and is surrounded by all the town’s main buildings. The church stands proud and tall among the crumbling ruins, its bright yellow walls shimmer in the late afternoon sun while the red blocked trim echoes the colonial past. The church bell hangs aimlessly as a dead snake hung by its tail in the 60-foot tower. There’s a couple of small tiendas and some bare cafes to cater for the scarce inhabitants and tourists that should be wandering around the empty streets. The infrequent locals breeze aimlessly from door to do as if buffeted by the ghosts of their forbearers while we are left to roam the town like wild goats. At the town limits an ancient mine cart acts as a town sign. Its thick, iron wheels are sturdy and well used but well capable of working another hundred years. The old cart has been superseded and is merely a relic much like the town its sleeps in.
I’m left wondering why Carlos has brought us to San Pedro first before visiting the mine. Maybe he wanted to show how desolate the town is and demonstrate how the mine provides much need vitality, like viewing a sick man in his hospital bed before being dosed of penicillin. As if predicting my gnawing, contemplation Carlos claps his hands and says: ‘Vanamos amigos’, and with that we climb back into truck and drive the short distance to the mine.
On arrival to the mine we are suited up in red and luminous safety vests and brand-new white, safety helmets emblazoned with the company New Gold Inc, a Canadian company which operates the mine under a myriad of legally challenged subsidiaries. We are then shepherded into a room and offered bottles of water. A projector screen is rigged against the wall and for the next 20 minutes we are treated to a corporate, feel good movie. The whole system of mining is broken down into benign basic systems and functions complete with captions and graphics. At the end of the video, New Gold Inc head honchos are pictured with beaming local children each of which are sporting new football strips and carrying new schoolbooks. I recognise the propaganda immediately and exchange a cynical eye roll with Robert.
Next, we are moved out to a panoramic vantage point of the overall mine. There’s an acrid, chemical smell that nips at your nostrils and tickles the eyes, an unnatural scent amongst the dry sand of a desert. I peer over the massive craters that would take mountains to fill and take in the manmade valley of terraced ridges. There are tiny cars whizzing round the ridges creating small clouds of dust in their wake. It’s only when I focus that I realize that these cars are enormous, dump trucks each about 70 tonnes of iron and engine with a carrying capacity of twice their tare. There’s about 20 of these automated ants tear arsing around the mine shifting loads of soil at break neck speed. With two diesel tanks of 160 litres each they can run continuously without stopping for a full week.
We walk down from the viewing platform to what seems like massive swimming pools lined with thick, black plastic.
‘What is the black plastic for?’ I ask Carlos.
‘So the acid does not go in the land’ he answers with his basic English.
I’m confused on why they must use acid at all and not employ some sort of shaking and separation system. I slowly piece my confusion together like a baffled child working out a sum and I’m stunned.
I later learn that the system is regarded as ‘Heap Leaching’ and the acid used is cyanide. Firstly, dynamite is used (25 tonnes daily in this mine) to blast and rip the soil from the earth. The soil and rock are then dumped on huge beds of thick, black plastic where it is sprayed, soaked and degraded by the corrosive cyanide. The gold and silver are eventually washed and filtered out while the leftover soil – a useless, poisoned chemical mulch – is discarded back into the earth. The precious metals? Well their collected, smelted and shipped out across the west to be fashioned into rings, jewellery, watches and other trophies. Carlos assures us that this process is safe and harmless. ‘Everything is returned to land and the acid and aqua is separated’ he says unclasping his fingers.
We follow him along the plastic lined pits to the large pipes and sieves that collect the acid and water and separate them to be reused. To demonstrate this dubious process there is a tap plumbed into a huge, metal, water vat. Carlos twists the tap head and lets the clear liquid spray onto the concrete path.
‘Look, the agua is puro. You can drink’ he says.
‘You take a drink then’ I tell him in a rare moment of effrontery.
He laughs at my cheeky taunt ‘No amigo, not today, I don’t have cup’
I laugh at his reply knowing that I have called his bluff and seen through the façade. I’m almost triumphant as we hand in our vests and helmets and leave the mine in the pickup truck.
We have one last stop before returning to San Luis and pull into space alongside a phalanx of pickup trucks which are clustered around a large, marquee tent. We are ushered inside and into a seat around one of the many round tables. I ask Carlos what the occasion and he is informs us it’s a quinceanera, or girl’s 15th birthday party. We are introduced to the girl’s father: a Ranchero complete with Stetson and slick snakeskin cowboy boots, then to the birthday girl and in turn half the tent. Beers and tequila are placed in front of us and we are quickly incorporated into the party.
A full Mariachi band is blaring on the stage at the bottom of the tent playing an ear-splitting cacophony of marching rhythm, booming brass and yodel like singing. It’s wonderful, and they soon have audience singing and swaying in appreciation. I lie back in my seat and savour this most Mexican of scenes. But just as the band have the audience captive a squall rips through the side of the tent. The wind whirls around the tables spraying dust into faces and gusting up the tablecloths and plastic dishes. The band are pounded by the gale and fire back against its ire, defiant and resolute but they are quickly defeated and the is party ruined. However, it’s during this moment as the guests begin to scatter and the band clings to the stage that I begin to understand Carlos and his compatriots’ dilemma. These mine workers and their families seem to be thriving like no residents of Cerro San Pedro have done before. The girl’s birthday party is as much a celebration of the community’s state of prosperity as it is the girl’s pass into womanhood. In Mexico many live a subsistence life with 42% of population living below the national poverty line. Few can afford a car never mind a brand-new American pick up so any opportunities to prosper, alike what has been provided by New Gold have to be seized. And while the Canadian company’s practices are offensive to my Western eyes and sensibilities the community of Cerro San Pedro simply cannot afford my vaulted morals. What I began to learn after my visit to the mine was that it is instability and unpredictability that are the biggest problems for Mexicans be that economic, societal, environmental or even climatic. If it is impossible to build on shifting sands this is why Mexicans, maybe more than any other nationality, have such a short-termed outlook on life and grab what and when can they can. Paradoxically this may also be why Mexico is so close to a failed state (Drug Wars and Northern neighbour’s not withstanding) and this is also why people will continue to ‘splashdown’ their pickups into the Rio Grande.
Note: Following contamination of the local water supply Environmental groups successfully protested and petitioned the Mexican government to cease practices at the Cerro San Pedro in 2016.