Llama sacrifices in a Bolivian mine at carnival

February 21, 2009

Oruro, Bolivia – I’m walking through a mining tunnel in Bolivia, dark but not too narrow, with a deafening brass band marching behind me. A stumbling drunk miner stops to urinate on the wall near me. The choking smoke of a bonfire inside the mine mixes with the sharp tea-like smell of the coca leaves the miners are chewing. Just ahead of me other miners are carrying four trussed-up llamas, drenched with beer and festooned with ribbons and confetti. The miners forced firewater down the llamas’ throats in a ceremony at the mouth of the mine and now they are bringing them into the mine to sacrifice them and ask for safety and abundance in the dangerous shafts.

The llama sacrifice is a ritual at the heart of Bolivia’s carnival, which also includes more familiar trappings such as parades, masks and carnival queens. The Quechua Indians who run the tired old Itos mine above the city of Oruro make offerings to two different protectors during carnival. As Catholics, they have a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the mine. As Quechuas who observe pre-Columbian religious beliefs they make sacrifices to “uncle,” the spirit who owns the zinc and tin and silver they blast out of shafts 300 meters deep. It’s dangerous work because they run aging equipment on a shoestring budget – each miner gives 10 percent of his earnings back to the cooperative. Commercial miners abandoned Oruro long ago, having sucked the biggest riches out of the mountain. The Quechua cooperative miners make a hard living off of the leftovers but if things go well at the sacrifice it could mean better days ahead.

For the sacrifice, dozens of miners and several journalists walk into the mine and stop in a cavern about 25 meters in. The atmosphere is serious, as befits a religious ceremony, but also joyous and a little unhinged as the miners drink heavily and their children run around squirting everyone with gigantic pump-action water guns (which is something children in Oruro do during carnival week). Some of the miners are in Andean ponchos, others in coveralls and helmets and headlamps. Most of their wives are in traditional Bolivian Indian wide skirts and bowler hats and shawls.

Deep in the mountain around me, miners are taking creaky lifts into other mines this day to make their own sacrifices asking for safety and abundance for the next 12 months.

“We must do this with all our faith,” says Jorge Gutierrez, the head of the mining cooperative, speaking through a wad of coca leaves. Then a Quechua witch doctor, Jose Morales, takes over the celebration, sprinkles sugar over the crowd in the dim cavern and blesses the eggs, alcohol and other offerings that were pushed into the mine on a trolley.

As he speaks people cheer, raise their 1-1/2-liter bottles, sprinkle beer on the floor and then drink deeply and drag off of cigarettes that were handed out as part of the ritual. I hear the rustle of hands in green plastic bags as the miners grab coca leaves from their stash and stuff them in their cheeks. They drink, chew coca and smoke at the same time.

The witch doctor, in a long red poncho, prays that the miners who cut the llamas will have “steady hands.” This is because the goal is to take out their hearts still beating – which is a good sign for safety in the mine. The brass band starts up again with gusto.

Betsabe Pacheco, a 48-year-old school teacher married to a miner, says she has come with her husband to the “challa,” or offering, for 20 years in a row. “I always ask for things to go well. We do this with all our hearts. I ask for a lot of mineral, a lot of zinc, a lot of silver,” she says.

The miners invite television camera crews to close in around them while they slit the llamas’ throats, drain blood into bowls, then open the animals’ chests to pull out their hearts. Morales holds up each gleaming heart in a bowl. Each one in turn beats vigorously for several seconds.

The lift rushes up and down the elevator shaft, taking blood to each level of the mine. The miners smear their faces with blood and then hug each other, their children and their wives and pose for photos. The band plays on. I jump when firecrackers go off behind me.

“Everything has its place. The things below the earth belong to uncle,” Morales tells me, looking a little dazed after the ceremony and rubbing his blood-caked hands. “We are giving something back for what he has given us. The blood is so we don’t have any accidents and we also ask that he gives us good veins of minerals,” he said.

The miners are eager to tell reporters about the ritual and their mine. Jaime Robles boasts to me that he can still carry 70 kg of ore on his back even though he is 51. After ascertaining that I’m roughly in his age group he tries to get me to dance. I can smell his coca breath as he leans in to tell me about the spirit of the mountain.

“He owns everything in there, he can kill us. You have to have a lot of faith in uncle.”

Photo credit: Reuters/David Mercado (Scenes from Ilama scrifice at Bolivian mine, February 20, 2009)


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How horribly barbaric!! Our comfort, protection and salvation comes only by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior and believing that He shed His blood for us. Sacrificing these poor creatures does nothing but kill. Jo Allen

Posted by AlvaJoAllen | Report as abusive

It’s sad that the Bolivian indians of Oruro have to work an old mine under dangerous conditions for small rewards and also sad they find it necessary to propitiate the spirits of the mine with live animal sacrifices. I hope that the economy of Bolivia will some day improve enough so that these miners can find better jobs and, more importantly, receive a better education so that they understand the blood of an animal or the Virgin Mary will not keep them safe in a mining job. Only better equipment and stricter, enforced, extraction practices can do that.

Posted by Frances Martin | Report as abusive

Well it doesn’t appear that all this sacrificing has helped the miners out much. It’s not like the llamas are giving up their life of their own free will.

Posted by Sherrlyn Borkgren Photography | Report as abusive

PETA should go to Bolivia and protest !!!

Posted by buffalojump | Report as abusive

If “challa” has propitiated the gods to the extent there have been no mine-related fatalities, cave-ins or explosions in 20 years, I’d say it seems to be working, quite well in fact.

Posted by Bethanye Barkus | Report as abusive

The humane sacrifice of an animal as described is certainly no worse than anywhere else in the world. Why is that “barbaric”? If you are proposing that all meat be removed from mans diet, then at least the argument would have some merit. Otherwise, let these hard working people do what they need to survive, both mentally and physically, in such difficult conditions…

Posted by Jaime | Report as abusive

I support the right to perform animal sacrifice. I think it is a very profound form of religous expression and should be tolerated around the world. Animals are not part of the same moral community as humans and should not be entitled to the same rights. As such, humans should view animals as nothing more than their property. If they choose to kill an animal for religous purposes, all the more power to them…

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

You talk as if all the Christian prayers in the world have done more to save humanity then the beliefs of one of the hundreds of cultures in South America. Do you think nothing “barbaric” has come from the history of any culture or religion? One more immature christian idiot the world must tolerate while they tolerate nothing. Go ahead to Bolivia and try to live in those conditions everyday, see if you believe your God still even exists.

Posted by Alec | Report as abusive

The conditions exist because they practice barbaric rituals. They sacrifice and torture animals—so they shall reap what they sow. The conditions they live in–shall prevail until they seek a higher path. A path which seeks to preserve not destroy and torture. I have no pity for a man who does not honor life…in all forms..yes there is a God but these people do not practice love or service to others…so they too shall bear the wrath of there destiny

Posted by onehelper | Report as abusive

yes there is a God—but they have shut him out–

Posted by onehelper | Report as abusive