On the sloping peak of a coastal hill rising from the muddy banks of the Maule River, which cuts through the lower Chilean heartland and once marked the southernmost boundary of the Incan empire, a wildfire was vaulting through a dense thicket of pine trees. It was an arresting sight: a shock of red among the moody shades of green and brown that Chilean winters customarily color the south-central landscape. I was seated on the edge of a wood-bottomed inflatable raft alongside four strangers—two wetsuit-clad soldiers in the Chilean army, a member of the Chilean Marine Corp, and a slightly seasick homicide detective—and we all stared uneasily at the flames before turning our attention back to the task at hand. It was a drizzly morning in mid-June, and we were searching for bodies.
I’d arrived in Constitución, a coastal city nestled between the Maule River and Pacific Ocean, three months after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami had decimated the city. With 102 people either dead or missing, Constitución had suffered the country’s highest death rate, largely as a result of the tidal waves that barreled several miles up the Maule forty minutes after the ground had stabilized. By June, many of the nearly 10,000 people who lost their houses had moved from tents to mediaguas—emergency housing units that resemble a one-room child’s playhouse—and enough time had elapsed for residents to become accustomed to the changes in their urban landscape: collapsed buildings, fissured sidewalks, pyramidal piles of crumbled mud brick, and, especially, uniformed soldiers trudging through the streets all hours of the day.
Their presence was disconcerting, conjuring up memories of the 1973 coup and resulting sixteen-year military dictatorship, when armed soldiers marched through the country’s streets in search of political “dissidents,” who were frequently dragged from their homes and tortured. At first, I kept my head down while strolling past the soldiers, but after observing the activities in which they were engaged—clearing away rubble, delivering water to resettlement camps, erecting mediaguas—I decided to stop by the headquarters they’d established in a water-damaged police station along the riverbank. A balding general escorted me to the commanding officer, a British-educated man who greeted me warmly and asked if I’d be interested in coming back at eight the following morning to shadow a search-and-rescue team up the Maule.
On the raft the next morning, we puttered along the northern edge of the river, hoping that the previous day’s rain had jarred loose bodies that had been snagged on underwater outcrops. A thin coat of sand was caked on the surviving flora twenty feet inland, tracing the path of the tsunami, and debris was scattered about the trees: bicycles, soiled shoes, tires, and ruined fishing boats. Every so often, we glimpsed a barge ferrying trucks strapped full of felled pines from one shore to another. Lucian Fernandez, the raft’s captain, told me that he arrived here a week after the quake and had scuba-dove along nearly every inch of the riverbank. Blue flags hanging from shoreline trees indicated spots that Lucian had inspected thoroughly, while makeshift wooden crosses memorialized places where he had fished out waterlogged bodies. Ten people were still missing, and there was a tacit understanding that the military was not, three months after the quake, looking for survivors. I found myself hoping perversely that we’d find a body, a sentiment that disturbed me deeply as soon as I recognized it.
Up the river, near a cluster of summering cabins, we spotted a tree trunk floating near the shore. Attached to it was a partially submerged white object. The Marine popped up and commanded Lucian to kill the motor. The homicide cop stood, too, but more disinterestedly, slightly curious but not expectant. As we circled the trunk, I could make out a mess of fur and a jutting snout. The eyes were no longer visible.
“It’s just a dog,” Lucian remarked, and then yanked the ripcord. “You should’ve seen all the animals we pulled from the river after the tsunami,” Lucian yelled over the thrum of the motor. “Tons of dogs, pigs, cats, chickens—I even found a horse split in two on the river bottom.” He shook his head in disbelief.
After arriving at a sandbank that marked the farthest point of the tsunami’s reach, we journeyed back along the opposite shoreline. Along the way we passed a scuba team that was diving from a rowboat in the center of the river. On a nearby beach stood a middle-aged man wearing a red sweater, his arms folded across his chest. Lucian waved and said to me, “His son drowned in the tsunami and we haven’t found the body yet. We’ve offered him help and let him know that we’re still out here looking, but he insisted on hiring professional divers. So now they’re here every morning, too.”
“He must be nearly broke by now,” the Marine saud. “After a while, you’ve got to figure that the body is simply gone.”
In one version of an oral legend passed down among the Mapuches, the largest indigenous group in the land now known as Chile, two serpents once waged perpetual war on each other. Kai Kai, the water serpent, awakened periodically from his slumber to cast waves upon nearby shores; Tren Tren, the earth serpent, raised the coastal hills by arching his back, shielding terrestrial creatures from the force of the waves. But absorbing these waves took its toll on Tren Tren, who gradually lost the strength to ward off the violent breakers. Soon, Kai Kai’s waves crashed through Tren Tren’s barriers and flooded the settlements clustered along the shore, submerging the coastal populations and giving shape to the distinctive geographical features at the continent’s southwestern end.
While this legend has been interpreted as a creation myth, analogous to the story of Noah and his ark, it also underlines a belief that continues to resonate within Chile: that the natural world is not an inert sphere molded by human activity, but rather a protagonist in its own right, an animate, if usually dormant, force prone to fits of destructive rage. Consider how Pablo Neruda describes the moments after the most powerful earthquake on record shook the port city of Valparaiso in 1960: “Sometimes when the walls and the roofs have come crashing down in dust and flames . . . there rises out of the sea, like the final apparition, the mountainous wave, the immense green arm that surges, tall and menacing, like a tower of vengeance, to sweep away whatever life remains within its reach.” In the past century alone, Chile has endured seven earthquakes that measured 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale, ensuring that each successive generation has harbored shared memories of those terrifying moments when the earth shuddered.
Yet focusing on the earth as an animating protagonist obscures the fact that so-called natural disasters are never purely, or even principally, natural. While residents in affected areas were awestruck by the thunderous sound that the earth emitted during the nearly three-minute quake, and by the titanic waves visible through the pale light of a full moon, they were equally passionate in their criticisms of the government’s response to the crisis and the muddled processes of delivering aid and housing to the victims afterward, which eroded social unity and fostered distrust among neighboring communities. It also became clear in the aftermath that the effects of the earthquake and tsunami had been experienced unevenly across the class spectrum, with marginalized or impoverished communities disproportionately damaged.
On a sunny afternoon in late May, I came across a group that had congregated around the inactive fountain in Constitución’s main plaza. They’d all lived in the same collapsed apartment building and now had organized to ensure their rights as victims. Several elderly men approached me. They had become disillusioned with the bureaucracy involved in securing a mediagua, and claimed that while none of their applications had been processed, they knew many people that had received mediaguas by milking their governmental contacts, even though these unnamed people still had supposedly habitable living spaces. Their grievances extended as much to their fellow victims as to the government.
Rodrigo, an elderly man with a gray mustache and a smoker’s cough, offered to drive me to the apartment building where they all used to live. On the ride over, he told me that he now was residing in a mediagua given to him not by the government but by the timber plant where he operated heavy machinery. The apartment building was three blocks from the Maule River and looked as if a bomb had fallen on it. Street dogs were sleeping on ripped mattresses scattered among muddy piles of loose cables, cracked children’s toys, and split furniture. We climbed the rickety staircase and stopped at a one-bedroom apartment littered with the former inhabitant’s broken possessions. “This is it,” Rodrigo said. “I lived here for twenty-five years, ever since this building first opened.” He then told me that it was common knowledge that the building was poorly designed: the terraces jutted out too far, the wiring was terrible, the foundation wasn’t reinforced enough. “We all knew it, but we tried not to think about it for the most part.” After a while, we walked back to the stairwell. Before descending, Rodrigo said softly, “I want to tell you something. On the night of the earthquake, I was sleeping here with my wife, and when we felt the tremors our first reaction was to get out of the building. Well, at the top of these stairs my wife was knocked off her feet and fell to the ground. Right down there.” He pointed to the bottom of the stairs. I glanced down and when I looked back up, tears had welled in his eyes. He turned away from me and said, after a beat, “We should get going.”
Buried within this experience is another problem that the earthquake magnified: insufficient regulatory oversight, on both regional and municipal levels, to ensure that recently erected buildings adhered to the country’s rigid seismic design code. Even though most modern structures withstood the shaking, there were several prominent examples of new buildings that caved in on themselves, raising questions about whether profitability had superseded safety concerns in their constructions.
These were questions that Chile’s new president hadn’t anticipated addressing during the first year of his administration. In January, Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman, became the country’s first democratically elected right-wing president in over fifty years, breaking the center-left coalition’s streak of twenty consecutive years in power. A free-market enthusiast who also vowed to continue with select social policies that have slashed the country’s poverty rate, Piñera rose to power through his self-portrayal as a competent manager who would run the state as “efficiently” as a CEO would a corporation. Yet the earthquake, which happened twelve days before his inauguration, damaged the image that Piñera had constructed for himself. Despite an initial outpouring of support and Piñera’s high-profile appearances in the affected areas—publicly surveying the damages, sleeping in a mediagua, watching World Cup games in resettlement camps—many victims soon came to the conclusion that the administration’s response was too disorderly and slow, at once burdened by bureaucracy and overly influenced by the private sector.
While Piñera’s image took a hit following the earthquake, another historically stigmatized institution, the Chilean military, underwent an unexpected symbolic revival. The military was by far the most visible organization offering humanitarian assistance in disaster areas, performing the sort of strenuous, labor-intensive tasks that sustained the victims and paved the way for the reconstructive processes. In late June I accompanied two soldiers who drove a water truck around to the resettlement camps, filling up the giant tanks that served as the residents’ only source of potable water. “We’ve got one unbreakable rule here,” Luis, the driver, told me. “You’re not allowed to say no if someone invites you in for coffee. I don’t care if it takes us till ten at night to finish up.” He considered the relationships that they established with the earthquake victims to be just as important as delivering water to them. By lunchtime I was feeling nauseous from having already downed three cups of coffee and two shots of aguardiente, a potent artisanal liquor.
Then on August 5th, when much of the country’s attention had shifted from the earthquake to the following month’s bicentennial celebrations, thirty-three workers in a mine outside the northern Chilean city of Copiapó became trapped nearly a half mile below the surface of the earth after a massive cave-in. During the following weeks, an underground drill probed the collapsed mine, and when it approached the 600-square-foot area in which the miners had found refuge, they managed to tie a bag to it with a note that read: “We’re fine here in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Their discovery captivated the nation: scores of people thronged Independence Plaza in celebration, and Piñera gave an emotional speech outside of the mine, clutching the excavated bag as if it were a sacred relic. The mood dampened, however, when it was announced that the shaft through which the miners would climb to safety would take months to dig; undeterred, Piñera vowed to have the trapped miners out in time for them to celebrate Christmas with their families.
Mining has been fundamentally important to the economic growth of Chile throughout its history, and for at least as long, the country has struggled to balance this growth with sufficient safety and environmental regulations. In the 19th century, the richest mines were found in the southern reaches of the Atacama Desert, an area that was referred to as the “land of ten thousand mines.” The copper mines in particular were so rich that by 1855 Chile already was responsible for half the copper consumed worldwide.
On the whole, these mines were small, crude, and reliant exclusively on human labor. Working conditions were ghastly, with long hours, low pay, and little social legislation to protect the workers. Children started work in the mines around the age of ten, and miners regularly hauled 200-pound loads on their backs several times per day. Charles Darwin witnessed first-hand these appalling labor conditions when he descended into a copper mine outside of the northern Chilean town of Coquimbo in 1835. Darwin described the miners as having “their bodies bent forward, leaning with their arms on the steps, their legs bowed, their muscles quivering, the perspiration streaming from their faces over their breasts, their nostrils distended, the corners of their mouth forcibly drawn back, and the expulsion of their breath most laborious.” It is unsurprising that the lives of these workers were often brutally short.
After emerging victorious from the War of the Pacific in 1884, Chile laid claim to the northern sections of the Atacama Desert, a mineral-rich stretch of land on which national and foreign-owned industrial corporations set up large-scale extractive enterprises throughout the 20th century. It was there that Chilean mineworkers began to wage labor battles against their employers, demanding and eventually securing the right to unionize, along with better safety and labor regulations. Yet as the recent cave-in demonstrates, these regulations have been unevenly enforced, particularly in small-scale operations. San Jose mine, where the thirty-three workers are trapped, ceased operations for much of July after a workplace injury. It reopened only eight days before the August 5th cave-in, despite strong doubts as to whether it had been properly inspected. Many of the trapped miners had privately expressed concerns about the mine’s safety before the accident, but with few other avenues of employment in the surrounding area, they felt compelled to continue laboring there, regardless of how vulnerable they felt.
While the February earthquake and August cave-in are different in many ways, they nonetheless share certain characteristics: both affected the poor the most, both starkly illuminated lax regulatory oversight, and both were, in differing respects, disasters generated by human decision-making. It seems perversely fitting that one of the miners, Raul Bustos, ended up as the victim of both. A heavy machinery mechanic in southern Chile, Bustos lost his job when the earthquake devastated the factory where he worked. In the ensuing months, he fled north in search of employment, which he lamentably secured at the San Jose mine.
Over the past months, aid workers communicated with trapped miners through boreholes the size of softballs, though which they funneled meals, letters, and entertainment. They learned that the miners had stayed alive by carefully rationing the tuna, milk, and biscuits that they had stored as emergency food supplies. After their discovery, the miners sent up a video of their underground shelter. Bearded, shirtless, and mud-flecked, the miners took turns greeting their loved ones and explaining their daily routines; at the end, they collectively sang the Chilean national anthem.
On October 12th, after nearly six weeks of constant drilling, the trapped miners were one by one pulled to safety in a canister painted the colors of the Chilean flag. With sunglasses shading their eyes, the miners stumbled out of the canister and toward their families, with Piñera invariably hovering in the background of the shot. Piñera wagered significant political capital on hoisting the miners from the earth, and the remarkable efficiency of the rescue effort was his reward. Around nightfall, he handed the miners original note back to them and accompanied them in a rendition of the national anthem.
Trapped miners chanting the national anthem, soldiers erecting housing for earthquake victims: these are heartrending images, at once inspiring and harrowing. They are apt images for Chile’s bicentennial, underscoring the central place of earthquakes and mining in the national imaginary. Chile is, after all, a seismic country whose economic wellbeing for centuries has depended on the extraction of its mineral wealth. These images bring to light the rippling undercurrents that are shaping the country, where a democratically elected right-wing president vows to overhaul the country’s mining regulations, where recently enlisted soldiers find their bearings in the shadow of an earthquake rather than a dictatorship, and where yet another generation becomes conscious of the instability of the ground beneath their feet. They also hint at a more uncomfortable reality: that Chile remains in many ways a vertical country, a place of persistent economic inequality that becomes more pronounced the farther north or south you travel from Santiago. Ultimately, these are visual indicators of progressions and problems that will carry over to the country’s third century.