Three miles up in the Peruvian Andes, La Rinconada is the highest settlement on the planet, a place whose bleak existence depends on the high price of its most coveted resource—gold.
As the price of the precious element more than quintupled over the past two decades, what was once a small town in the shadow of snowcapped Mount Ananea has transformed into an uncontrolled sprawl of corrugated metal shacks packed around artisanal mine entrances and a refuse-choked lake. The biting cold and lack of oxygen at 16,732 feet above sea level leave even the locals gasping for breath, and it smells like what it is—a settlement with a transient population of some 30,000 to 50,000 people and no garbage collection or sewer system.
Fatal accidents in the labyrinth of mines deep inside Mount Ananea are common, as are lethal brawls. Miners have been robbed or even murdered after selling their gold, their bodies left in mine shafts. Some murder victims have been women and girls lured from larger cities in Peru and Bolivia by human traffickers who confiscated their identity papers and put them to work in La Rinconada’s dingy bars and brothels.