Meet the coal miner risking it all in Mexico

STORY: In his twenty-one years of mining coal in Mexico’s northern state of Coahuila, Juan Briones knows each time he descends the narrow shaft, he’s risking death to make a living.

“When you’re winched down, rocks can fall over and some down it at brutal speed. They can topple onto your head and hurt you. The helmet is your only protection, but if big stones fall over, you can be knocked over. The second danger is gas, as there can be explosions.”

Briones, a father of four, could encounter falling rocks, explosions, floods and cave-ins to haul coal for roughly $150 a week. He keeps digging even after disaster struck a nearby coal mine. His brother-in-law was among 10 trapped at the El Pinabete mine in August when water broke through a shaft wall and flooded it. Two months later, their bodies have yet to be recovered.

The failed rescue efforts at El Pinabete turned attention to the dangers miners face every day at dozens of small, unregulated sites in Mexico’s coal heartland.

Miners such as Briones get hired without contracts, and sent underground with little protection. Reuters reported in September that El Pinabete, one of the many Coahuila mines that provided coal to Mexico’s state-owned power utility, was not visited by labor inspectors.

Critics say these unregulated mines are a public health hazard ignored for too long. Aleida Azamar is a mining analyst at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense.

“For one thing, these mines should be banned. Second, if you are to allow them, then you have to put in security conditions and train personnel to take these workers out in case of an accident. Third, very important: they shouldn’t be so deep because depth is riskier for accidents and disaster, plus, it affects how miners work as deep mines don’t allow for rescues.”

Briones has been working in these mines since he was 14. He said he keeps hauling coal, because that keeps his family fed.

“Sometimes you have the need to survive, to take care of your family as your children demand and they don’t know if there is money or there isn't. For this reason, you get in the mine.”