A Guaniamo Diamond Miner Is Nobody's Best Friend: The Bad Life in the Venezuelan Jungle

A Venezuelan diamond miner would do anything for a shiny piece of carbon. He would get up at six o’clock every morning seven days a week to dig holes and trenches for ten and twelve and fourteen hours a day under the hot tropical sun. He would sleep in a hammock; tolerate the tropical jungle diseases and poisonous snakes and the lack of drinking water, the card sharps, the pool hustlers, the whores who pick pockets and have venereal disease. And after that he would pay sixtyfive cents for a Coke.

For a diamond, a diamond miner will do anything. Some diamond miners have a bad reputation. Example: one day two miners went into the jungle to prospect. Shall we call them Sam and Frank? Well, Sam returned with a fistful of diamonds and Frank ... well, the way Sam tells it, Frank was walking by the river and he fell in and the piranha ate him up, or Frank got swallowed by a river boa, or Frank got bitten by a tiger butterfly snake and died, bless his soul, or Frank got eaten by cannibals, or . . . A lot of things could have happened to Frank in the jungle. There is no doubt about that. But what is Sam’s credibility quotient the first time he returns without a Frank? The second? The third? People get a bad reputation when their friends make a habit of meeting disaster in the jungle.

Georges de Steinheil, the man who makes all the travel posters for the tourist bureau of Venezuela, used to mine diamonds in Brazil before he turned to professional photography for a living. He recalled a day in Brazil—a hot day and no diamonds, and he was sitting at the bar in a makeshift mining camp. Two miners next to him were drunk and arguing. One bet the other that he could shoot a man in the ear with a pistol at fifty paces and make him spin around. A total stranger walked into camp. Bang. The stranger caught a bullet in the ear, spun halfway around, and fell down dead. The miner won his bet. It was the jungle.

The Venezuelan government has a very relaxed philosophy about the tens of thousands of diamond miners spread through the hot, tropical jungles lying below the Orinoco River. Live and let live. Since World War II, Venezuela has had a boom economy. The huge oil reserves found below Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela brought in foreign capital —Shell, Esso, BP, Texaco—and assured the government of money. Taxes on the three million barrels of oil exported daily from Venezuela provide steady revenue.

Diamonds? The Ministry of Mines levies a 3 percent tax on diamonds from the jungle mines. The tax yields a pittance in comparison with the money oil brings in. The government’s revenues from the oil trade in 1969 amounted to $1.2 billion. Venezuela considers the diamond-trade revenue so negligible that official figures are not available; calculations based on 1969 production and exchange figures show that Venezuela’s revenue from the diamond trade was under $50,000. Oil is the lifeblood of the nation; diamonds just haven’t been that important. Yet there they are in the jungles of Venezuela, one of the few countries where an independent diamond miner can still take them legally. He can keep what he finds, and lately there seem to be a lot of diamonds to find in Venezuela.

One handwritten ledger records the progress of diamond mining in Venezuela. It sits in the office of the Ministry of Mines in the new blue-glass government office building in the center of Caracas. For the first six months of 1969 the total diamond production for Venezuela was just over 42,000 carats. The second six months of 1969 showed a diamond production of more than 150,000 carats. The total diamond production for the year (193,784.14 carats) was the highest ever recorded in Venezuela. (In 1965, 90,956 carats were produced.) What happened?

What happened was a strike at San Salvador de Paul, once a tiny jungle village near the Caroni River. Since World War II, miners from Brazil and Colombia, prohibited from mining in their own countries, have been drifting in through the jungles, the back door of Venezuela. During this time, various diamond strikes in Venezuela have attracted hundreds and sometimes several thousands of hopeful miners. But none of them ever came close to the strike at San Salvador de Paul. The jungle outpost of eight or ten people grew into a boomtown of 15,000 miners —more than half of them Venezuelans, a sizable number of them Brazilians and Colombians, the rest a mixture of Lebanese, Mexicans, and French.

It used to work this way: A Sam and a Frank go into the jungle, and then a long time later they reappear in style. They suddenly have some money. They put up at the Gran Hotel in Ciudad Bolivar and drink and whore and gamble and spend their money until they are broke, and then they go back into the jungle. But San Salvador de Paul was a bulla, a diamond strike, and this time other miners followed. Production soared. Miners made fortunes overnight. Turbaned Sikhs with bodyguards appeared out of nowhere to buy diamonds with satchels full of 500bolivar1 ($100) notes. There were eight movie houses. Whores lined up at the airport in Ciudad Bolivar begging for a seat on a plane; thousands of them made it to San Salvador de Paul. Americans with nicknames like Tex appeared out of nowhere with light planes, flying sides of beef to the mines. A profitable venture. Tex made as much as $2000 profit on each trip, and he sometimes made five trips a day.

The boom continued through 1970. For the first six months of that year more than 275,000 carats of diamonds were found in Venezuela, nearly one and a half times the total production of 1969. At that point the dry season made it impossible to mine diamonds at San Salvador de Paul, for the mining process requires water. Then news came of an even richer strike at Guaniamo, 250 miles to the southwest. All the miners, their women, the shopkeepers, and the buyers fled en masse to Guaniamo. The diamond buyers agree that the diamonds there are of even higher quality than the diamonds at San Salvador de Paul.

Guaniamo, the newest strike of all, is in a region of the jungle where diamonds have never been found before. Oscar Yanes, the director of Venezuela’s Televisora Nacional, sent a crew of cameramen into the jungle to film the new strike. A miner showed the camera a handful of diamonds belonging to him and his partner. They had found them in one week. The diamonds were worth $10,000.

Guaniamo lies in deep jungle at the source of the Cuchivero River, and is accessible only by helicopter (or foot) from Ciudad Bolivar, over 200 miles away. (Ciudad Bolivar is an hour’s flight from Caracas.) There is the possibility of more strikes in the Guaniamo region, and when the rainy season comes again, there will still be all those diamonds back at San Salvador de Paul.

The boom continues. A few keep their wealth; most gamble it and spend it away. The prospect of becoming rich overnight is an irresistible lure, and that is why there are more than 15,000 people in the jungle at Guaniamo, its whole economy supported by the small palmfuls of tiny crystalline diamonds taken from the earth. The miners, the whores, the airplane pilots, the shopkeepers are all supported by the diamonds. It is a rough life. The government prohibits alcohol in the mining camps on the grounds that it leads to fighting and to killing. The Guardia Nacional is there to keep order, and it tries to enforce the prohibition. But there is always some liquor around, and always some way to buy off the guard. And there is always the tropical heat as well, and the insects and the unsanitary conditions and the undrinkable water, but everyone stays on as long as there are diamonds to be found and money to be made.

Johnny Volpe, a Venezuelan, the movie magnate of Venezuela’s diamond mines, was sitting on a wooden bench outside his canvas-ceilinged, canvas-walled pride and joy. He is, in a manner of speaking, a Louis B. Mayer of the jungle, only precocious—not yet thirty.

Johnny twirls his Pancho Villa mustache and talks about the movie business. His best film? Well, without a doubt it was a Chuck Connors special called Cowboy: Go Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. It really packed them in, two full shows. In the mines “action is number one over sex.” The worst? The worst was drama, absolutely no good. The sex films were skin flicks, and they did well, but the action films were closer to the miners’ way of life.

El Candado is the main mining camp of Guaniamo. Johnny Volpe had his movie theater, made of canvas and logs and log seats and gasoline-station tricolor plastic flags, set on a small hill overlooking the camp. “Wait until the evening. You’ll see what it is like then. Come and watch me pull the suckers in.”

A little before showtime, eight o’clock, it was all confusion chez Johnny. Johnny and his assistants and his wife were all crowded onto the platform in the back of the room, huddled over the Bell & Howell, fiddling around, and all they could get out of the projector was an image that jumped. They gave up and set up the reserve projector. Then Johnny grabbed the mike, flipped on the switch, and began a sales pitch that blared from the speakers outside and could be heard all over camp: “FANTASTIC. INCREDIBLE. PLENTY OF ACTION. LOTS OF INDIANS.”

It was hard to believe that he was describing The Oregon Trail, a 1936 movie about the Lewis and Clark Expedition starring Fred MacMurray. The house was almost full—it seats about 100—and the man who sold peanuts and candy bars outside the door, producing his wares from a burlap sack, did a fine business.

The miners, with the help of the Spanish subtitles, sensed that Fred MacMurray was not cut out to be an explorer, but whenever someone caught an arrow in the stomach or in the eye, they really loved it and yelled for more. At 5 bolivars a head, and 100 heads, Johnny had done all right, and tomorrow night there would be another film. There was a new film every night, and the only costs were the film and the electricity from the generator. Johnny and his wife were about $18,000 ahead for the year.

Johnny twirls his black mustache some more: yes, it sure is an amazing world. Only two years ago he had been busted. The miners, yes, they were all crazy, yes, completely crazy. They got skin infections from the water. After a while, the skin of the miners turned yellow. Their livers were bothering them. And at the Caracol camp nearby, six to eight to ten divers got the bends every year and became crippled.

And the planes. Yes, the airlines were so greedy for a profit that they kept the planes in the air all the time, and the planes were always overloaded, and there was not enough time to check them out and make sure that they were ready to fly. Every two weeks there was a plane landing in the jungle. Three weeks ago a Cherokee lost one of its engines only a few minutes after leaving Cuchiverito. They turned back and put the other engine on takeoff power. They were over the jungle and they could see the field and the airstrip, but the last engine went, and the whole plane exploded in the sky.

“Six were killed. Five miners and one woman. She was a whore.”

And the killing. Yes, last week there was a killing. Cigarron (“Little Cigar”) was drinking with his friend Harina Pan (“Flour Bread”). They had been everywhere together and mined all over Venezuela together, but there were some words, and they were drinking rum. Because of what was said, Harina Pan stabbed his friend right through the heart, and Cigarron died. It was very sad, and the Guardia Nacional had no place to put Harina Pan, so they tied him to the benches right here in the movie house. He was here for two days. I felt so sorry for him. He looked so unhappy. I don’t know where he is now, probably somewhere in the jails in Ciudad Bolivar.

Of course, there was the Brazilian. He did not know anything about helicopters. It was one of those jet helicopters, a Ranger. You know how much noise one of them makes, and you can’t hear anything else. Well, he didn’t hear them yelling when he tried to walk around the back. His head, completely chopped off. It went fifteen meters. He never saw the back propeller . . .

It is not that Johnny has an especially lugubrious mind that fastens on every violent death that happens. It is just that life in the diamond mines is incredibly rugged. The miners of South America have a reputation. Professor Richard E. Schultes of Harvard spent a total of thirteen years in the Colombian jungles alone—no guides, no party tours, just himself and an aluminum boat—collecting botanical specimens. He does not fear the jungle, but he does not care for the miners. “The jungle is way overrated by people who have not been there—just keep a level head and you will have no problem,” he says. Above all, “Don’t drink with the miners.” No one is close to Schultes in his understanding of the jungle and the Indians and their medicines and their drugs, and when Professor Schultes says not to drink with the miners, he means: DON’T DRINK WITH THE MINERS.

Quino Lorinez, twenty-six years old, son of a stationery-store owner in Caracas, was sitting on the side of his hammock, swinging slowly back and forth and puffing on a small cigar. The roof of his rancho (“hut”) was red plastic laid over a frame of saplings cut from the jungle. He was young, with light brown hair, and good-looking, and his skin was bronze from the sun. It was too hot in the day to wear a shirt, digging as he did in an open pit. He talked about the early days:

Yes, before the planes came and the helicopters and the people, it was much different. These miners, they were animals. They were strong like mules. They got to the last town, Las Pavas, then they packed their shovel and their surruca and as much food as they could carry, and they started walking on foot through the jungle. Some of them even packed a fifty-pound water pump besides the other forty pounds of food and equipment. Those, they were definitely crazy. Six days, seven days, eight days through the jungle walking up mountains and down mountains. Then they dug for diamonds for a week, for two weeks, until the food ran out. Then back through the jungle, a week, maybe more, without food sometimes, back to Las Pavas. Miners who had food wouldn’t sell it to those who had run out.

Forty bolivars [$ 10] for a can of sardines. Never. I would never sell. I had to eat. When the food ran out, I had to start back or I would die. It was before the Guardia Nacional even tried to keep order, and there was sometimes drinking and fights; miners killed each other. Yes, he had seen one miner rip out another miner’s throat with his teeth. It was nothing to talk about. Now life was easy. . .

And as for the diamonds: the compradors (“buyers”) were all thieves. In San Salvador de Paul they paid 200 bolivars a carat, and here they paid only 180 bolivars a carat. For a one-carat stone of good quality, perhaps they would pay 350 bolivars, and for the best-quality 4-carat stone they paid 4500 bolivars, and if you were very lucky and found a top-quality 10-carat stone, they might pay 20,000 bolivars. But those were good-quality diamonds. For a carat of dirty diamonds, industrial diamonds, nongem quality, maybe 10 bolivars a carat. . .

Quino had seen one black diamond during his year and a half in the minefields. It was exactly half a carat. The comprador paid 1000 bolivars for it, and it was a beautiful stone. Quino made the same complaints all miners made. All his money went for drink and putas and cards. He had planned to come to the mines and save money for a car, but when he made a score (and one week he made 5000 bolivars for his half-share of the diamonds), he did what everyone else did. A week later he was broke, broke without leaving the mines. It used to be that the miners went to Ciudad Bolivar to spend their money, but now the gamblers and the whores were right on hand. The whores were 150 bolivars for a night, 50 bolivars for an hour, and the gamblers got the rest. There was one rule of the mines: the miners never kept their money. Even if they left the mines, a month later, two months later, they always came back, broke.

Night had fallen on El Candado. The night was pure black. There were no neon signs to light up the sky. The electric generator shut off at ten o’clock. Back in the jungle somewhere a panther yowled at a moon that was out of phase. Only little dots of stars sprinkled the sky. The miners who were still about carried their flashlights and aimed them down in their path so they would be sure not to tread on a snake. The beams of light could be seen moving up and down the sides of the hill to the camp.

The canvas-covered hut on Main Street was a food store and a dining room. Johnny Volpe ate there, and his movie poster advertising the coming attraction was tacked to one wall. There was a store and a card game and a pool table on the other side of the street, a 4′ by 8′ bar pool table with a cue ball larger than any object ball. Five bolivars a rack of pool. The table had been airlifted into the jungle piece by piece. There were five tables in El Candado alone. The store farther along on the right was dark, and a few miners were standing around the green-felted pool table in the store on the left, talking in low tones, with cues in their hands.

Main Street was very narrow, a dirt path just wide enough for two. A diamond buyer turned off the light to his stand. He had been sorting the yellow diamonds from the jewels, the flawed stones from ones with perfect octagonal shape and no carbon in the middle. He had been weighing diamonds with his tiny cup scales and looking at them with his magnifier and moving them with his tweezers all day and all night. He crumpled up the sheet of white diamond paper that he had been sorting the stones on and tossed it into the corner. Then he retreated behind the black curtain in his stand, back to his open hammock and the hiding place for his diamonds and his gun. The other buyers on the street had closed.

Main Street took a one-foot step down over a tree root and turned to the left. The little shop with comic books and magazines, the place to bet the 5 y 6 for the horses at La Rinconada and the place to mail letters, was still open. Most of the street was dark. The shops with gold jewelry hanging in the front, or with pots and pans and soap and medicine, or with eggs and meat and loaves of bread had shut down for the night. The three red tanks perched in a tree— shower, 2 Bs.—and the three tin shower stalls were quiet and empty. But not everyone was asleep.

A beautiful dark-skinned woman with a thin face, a professional gambler, was looking at her cards very carefully. Her feet were on a dirt floor, and she sat at a table of rough wood next to an Andean miner in a red shirt. The woman wore an expensive lace blouse and a gold necklace. There was not much light in the room for the card players; the oil lamp flickered, and their eyes were in shadows. Money passed after every hand, and the woman put it in her bra between her breasts. There were five at the table: three miners, the woman, and another professional gambler. The man dealt the cards in an odd flicking motion off the front of the deck. The hand was quicker than the eye. Was he dealing the top card or the second one? The miners were drinking, and they were sure to lose their money.

TO MINE DIAMONDS

Shots. Gamma globulin. Yellow fever. Smallpox. Typhoid. Tetanus booster. Cholera and plague shots can be taken, but they are not really necessary and induce severe reactions in some people.

Travel. $225 round-trip excursion seventeenday fare from Kennedy or Dulles Airport to Caracas. Cheapest way of all is to hitchhike to Miami and catch a cargo plane to Caracas for about $40 one way, or sometimes for free. Stay one night at the Tamanaco Hotel in Caracas, $20 and luxurious. Sixty-six dollars buys a round-trip ticket to Ciudad Bolivar. Stay at Gran Hotel, $10 a night.

To get to the mines: Fly to Guaniamo or San Salvador de Paul or any recent diamond strike. The Commeravia Airline people at the Ciudad Bolivar Airport will know where the action is. Flying costs vary between $40 and $100 round trip. Take cash in bolivarstravelers checks are no good in the minesand plan on $5 to $10 a day for expenses: food, shower, movie. Dangerous for women and children.

Mining Equipment. Surruca, metal shovel ends (two types), straw hat, La Clorodina (for fever and stomach conditions), can be bought in Ciudad Bolivar.

Get your jungle hammock, Tyrolean boots, khaki pants, sunglasses, Off (for insects), flashlight, aspirin, and Band-Aids in the United States. At least one long-sleeved shirt is a good idea for when the insects get very bad. Do not worry about the snakes, the miners have scared most of them away, and except for the divers in the Caroni, very few miners ever die of snakebite. Your visa is good for seventeen days, and you can get it on the morning of your flight at Pan Am. Hold on to it tightly, for it is the only thing you have that proves that you are not a spy. Watch your equipment closely; two weeks in any mining camp is one wild experience, and as a visitor you are not going to be welcomed.

Finally, avoid drinking any liquid anywhere that is not bottled, and do not eat any lettuce.

Farther down the street, beyond the room hidden from view where the five played cards, there were more silent and dark ranchos, and then the street came to an end. The little river, five feet across, that rushed down a tiny ravine could not be seen. The chocolate water was there though, gurgling and bubbling and rushing by in the night.

The log that was the bridge led to the red-light zone. The whores were there, and the miners who were rich for a week. There was a twelve-year-old whore in camp, and she could charge more because she was so young and everyone wanted her.

In the morning at the airstrip at Cuchiverito, Tony, who worked for one of the airlines unloading supplies and food from the planes and putting it on the helicopters, noticed two whores waiting at the table. He smiled at them and talked to them and told them that they were his girls. The big fat man with the clipboard and the Italian loafers and the checkered shirt and the big belly yelled at Tony to get back to work, but the voice was drowned out by the roar from the helicopters. The girls wore patent-leather sandals and canary yellow and purple slacks, and one had gold earrings and long hair, and the other short hair and no earrings. They sat on the chairs made from the hide of mountain cows, brown and white hides with a little hair, and they listened to Tony and they stroked their hair and they smiled and giggled. Their hair was dark and their eyes were a dark brown and their skin bronze, and the whore with the gold earrings had a gold tooth and she smiled the most of all. But Tony had to get back to lifting packages in the sun, and the whores had to get into the helicopter for the ride to the mines a few miles away. Tony put his arms around them and said good-bye, and then he spoke in English so they would not understand. “These are my girls.” Smile. And he squeezed them tighter, and continued. “Get a piece of ass at the mines, get the clap for sure.” There are no doctors at Guaniamo.

The thing about diamond miners is that they are eternal optimists. Today is always the day that they will find the big stone that will make them rich. Every day is a day with new hope, and the minute the sun comes up, off they dash to their digs.

The miners at El Candado stake out a claim as near a ravina (“little river”) as possible. Then they usually do an open-pit excavation, digging out a square plot about fifteen feet or so to a side. The earth is piled up to one side, and when a streak of blue clay is found, all the earth containing it is piled separately from the rest. Then, after a few days of digging, the miners stop. Either there is too much water in their pit and their gasoline-powered water pump is no longer effective, or they have come to the end of the blue clay. Or after digging for several days, they have found no blue clay and must try another spot.

The ton or so of blue clay is carried away—from 20 feet to 100 yards—down to a ravina. Shovelful by shovelful the clay is washed in the surruca, which is three concentric sieves. The miner bends over, the water halfway up his calves. His back is the spring. With his arms and knees slightly bent and his hands grasping the wooden rims of the surruca, the miner turns the sieves in jerky quarter turns, like the action of a washing machine, except the motion is always in the same direction. Besides the turning motion, there is an up-and-down motion. The miner dips the surruca into the water and turns it half-submerged; then he holds the surruca against one leg while he reaches in with a hand and crunches unwilling clods of clay so that the water will wash away the dirt and leave the gravel.

When there is only gravel left, the miner takes the top sieve with the biggest screen holes and runs his hands over the stones left. Any diamond that size, 10 or 20 carats, is easy to spot. Then, on to the second sieve. Any medium-sized diamond of 4 to 10 carats will not be missed. The miners look with educated eyes. A wet, gleaming piece of quartz reflecting the bright tropical sun and sparkling in all directions looks very much like a diamond to the novice, but the miner does not even give it a second glance. More likely he is pleased that there are a lot of small, round pebbles, some black and some red and orange, in the second surruca. These are indicaciones, indications. Where they are found, diamonds will be found. When the diamonds were formed from carbon many ages ago, a lot of near diamonds were made. These are the indicaciones. The third sieve is where most of the diamonds are found.

There is a reason for that special surruca stroke. There is a reason that the three concentric sieves have screens that are cone-shaped rather than round-bottomed. Diamonds have a specific gravity of 3.5. Indicaciones have a specific gravity of around 3.0. Other stones are less dense. Water, of course, has a specific gravity of 1.0. The swirling and slightly churning surruca motion helps wash away the dirt, that is true, but much more important, it sifts the material into layers. In the third sieve, the lightest stones are on top, and at the very bottom of the cone is a concentration of stones with the greatest density. The miners poke about in the third sieve with their fingers for a little, and then they flip the sieve over on land, and carefully look in the top of the cone for those precious diamonds. A miner’s heart jumps when he sees the sparkle of a really perfect blue-white gem. The diamonds do not sparkle like the diamonds in storefront displays since they have not yet been cut, but they sparkle all the same.

The miner plucks the diamond from the gravel and puts it in his mouth and keeps looking. When he’s done, he takes the diamond from his mouth and puts it in a Vicks inhaler vial called a penetro. To make a penetro he takes the inhaler out of the plastic vial and bores a hole in the cap. He puts a piece of string through the hole and holds it in place by pouring in hot wax and cooling it. The miner ties the string to his belt and wears the penetro inside his belt next to his skin, or in the watch pocket of his blue jeans. The minute a miner gets a few good diamonds, off to the buyers, and if it is a good score, the miner will give a few of the diamonds to his favorite whore. (The present for the whores has a special name, recorte.) Then the miner will bribe the Guardia Nacional to get some drink, and he will play poker or ajiley or pifi or truco (gin rummy games), or he will throw the dados (dice), or he will bet on a cockfight if there is one, or he will send out bets from the mines on the 5 y 6 at La Rinconada, and he will sleep with his whore in her hammock until all the money is gone. Then, back to digging, and turning and jiggling the surruca; hungry nights, fever, and bad water.

Someday they will find the big diamond, like Barabas, and then they will become famous. The newspapers say that Barabas got paid 40,000 bolivars for his diamond, but the miners know that that is only part of the story. The diamond buyers put Barabas up at the best hotel in Caracas and settled on a price of 120,000 bolivars (at that time the bolivar was 3 to the dollar) for the gem. Then they paid off the debts Barabas had piled up at the hotel, and for the fine women and the clothes and the wild nights on the town, and gave Barabas the remainder, 40,000 bolivars. But soon he was broke again and back at the mines. Of course, the diamond buyers made a profit, but who can call them thieves? The diamonds from the Barabas gem sold for a total of $200,000. A neat profit of $160,000. Barabas is still in the Venezulean diamond fields, poor and old and still looking for another big diamond.

  1. The bolivar is approximately 4.4 to the dollar.