In the Tiny Community of El Triunfo, in Baja California, Mining left a Poisonous Legacy
They Mistakenly Called the Place El Triunfo
El Triunfo: Not Triumphant for Long
Perhaps more care should be used in naming the home town, no matter with what optimism you might view the immediate future. In the case of El Triunfo, South Baja California, Mexico, silver was in demand all over the world in the 19th Century and sizeable pay dirt was being mined here, warranting the name for the first mine, later applied to the whole town.
Success followed failure rapidly in El Triunfo: labour disputes, a revolution, world silver devaluing and the deposits of pay-dirt themselves petering-out or proving to obstinate in holding on to their precious cargo. The result today is a charming old half-ruined village of 300 souls, most of whom do local government make-work - and a handful who still try to scratch a living from the old piles of dig.
Silver, copper and gold mining can be a dangerous process. Right up to modern times, the cyanide process has been used, and we only see this being banned in places like New Zealand and the USA in the last ten years. Meanwhile, it still goes on in poorer countries with less legislation or a lack of will to enact it. And let’s face it, a bribe will still get most officials to turn a blind eye.
The extraction of gold by cyanide may be used in areas where fine-gold bearing rocks are found. Sodium cyanide solution is mixed with finely-ground rock that is proven to contain gold and/or silver, and is then separated from the ground rock as gold cyanide and/or silver cyanide solution. Zinc is added to the solution, precipitating out residual zinc, as well as the desirable silver and gold metals. The zinc is removed with sulphuric acid, leaving a silver and/or gold sludge that is generally smelted into an ingot then shipped to a metals refinery for final processing into 99.9999% pure metals.
The problems began when the little mines dotting the cactus-covered hills around El Triunfo closed for lack of money or interest. The upper and lower containment tanks still held residue from the extraction process, along with a stagnant pool of the water needed, which had to be tanked in in this desert region. Although skull and crossbones signs have been erected in some spots, many of the hundreds of mines have been ignored, or have lost the signs (probably to Mexican eBayers!).
Cyanide is one of the most deadly poisons known to man, as many who watched the barbaric demise of murderers on death row could bear witness. In fact, as little as one teaspoonful of 2% mixture strength is enough to kill a man. And less for the animals and birds that have lived in the region. A steer needs more, but they have often drunk enough, because the area is strewn with bones, picked clean by hyenas and buzzards. Not a pretty sight.
Men, too, have been lost as a result of cyanide. It is such a hazardous job. The miners wear gloves, but they must remember not to touch their faces while at work, and to wash repeatedly to remove the last vestiges of the poison. Cyanide has leached into the aquifers, too, making water from them undrinkable, although it is used for everything else. The army trucks in drinking water on a daily basis at no charge for residents. (I lived there for 3 years, and they wouldn’t give me any! So I stuck to beer). There is concern that the contaminated area can effect the longevity of residents, ever if they don’t die as a direct effect of ingesting poison.
The last large company to try their hand at mining here was the French El Boleo concern. They were part of the conglomerate which had taken a fortune from the copper mines in Santa Rosalia about 300 miles to the north. They came in in the 1920’s and opened a laboratory which still stands, sans roof; upgraded the mouldering infrastructure, including the impressive chimney built by British engineers in the mid nineteenth century, and which still proudly reaches skyward today, looking nearly as good as new. But their grand plan only lasted about another 25 years and they folded their tents and crept back to Paris, leaving a bloody mess, endearing them to few, and a few graves accommodating those who fell there. In fact, El Triunfo has done well in the death business as there are graveyards for Chinese, Mexicans, and even one for 10 British managers, which features solid brick tombs and is hidden in the hills at the back of the village. No one living today knows who these people were, as any plaques have been removed long ago and only local legend indicates where they were from. They have lain there for around 100 years, alone and forgotten. as is the fate of most who grace this planet with their presence for such a short moment in time.
The Chinese labourer’s graves date back to the revolution in that country when many labourers were shipped all over the world to find work. Such was the conditions in this giant empire back then that even dirt poor rural Mexico had more to offer. Their offspring settled in nearby La Paz and many businesses today bear their names, as their features survive in many of the Spanish-speaking population. Some of the British miners who came to work here were from Cornwall and although I found none in Baja, I stumbled onto a bakery making pasties identical to “Oggies,” or the mince and onion filled Cornish Pasties we know so well in the UK, in Hidalgo State on the mainland. The Chinese evidently refused to let their dead spend eternity with the “lesser” beings from other countries who fell there; they built a separate graveyard bearing a handful of little tombs looking just like pagodas. All had been vandalized, in contrast to the British tombs: the vandals knew the British wouldn’t be wasting material effects on the dead!
El Triunfo today, as I mentioned in another post, is slowly - very slowly- being rebuilt into its former glory when 10,000 people lived there and it was the largest town in South Baja. Several foreigners have picked up ruined properties for a bagatelle and are restoring them; a quite important piano museum is open and can be visited. A walk around the ruins of the mines can be interesting (mind the rattlers and scorpions!). The town is on the back road that passes through Los Barriles from La Paz down to the Cape towns of San Jose del Cabo, and Cabo San Lucas…different life there, they should have been called The Triumph - if you like that kind of thing, which this reporter emphatically does not.