What started with a child stumbling across a small, six-gram spec of gold hidden within the silt of a local river soon became one of the most notorious and violent open-air gold mining excavations in history. In January of 1979, word got out that gold had been found on a rural lake-side property in Pará, Brazil, and that the site would be open to the public for mining.
Within a week, the area was flooded with prospective diggers hoping to cash in on the discovery and build a better future for themselves; however, they would instead find themselves in a veritable bottomless pit, dripping with mud and sweat, carrying 40-pound bags of silt and soil up rickety ladders in order to sift through the debris and – hopefully – unveil their riches.
Sadly, not all those who ventured into the mine found their way back out, and those who did risked having both their riches and their lives snatched from them by the murderous chaos that had enveloped the rural town.
Each Of The 100,000 Miners Was Assigned Their Own 2X2 Meter Area To Dig – But Many Never Made It Back Out
When gold was discovered in Serra Pelada, which means “Naked Ridge" in Portuguese, men flocked from all around Brazil in hopes of finding work at the mine. Workers, or garimpeiros, who made between USD $2 and $3 per day (or 20 cents per sac of soil), would scale the nearly quarter mile of ladders and ropes to reach the area where the plots began, with each worker being designated their own 2X2 meter square of soil to excavate – all by hand.
But since the garimpeiros were limited by the borders of their plots, their only option was to dig progressively deeper. The problem was that the deeper their plots went, the more dangerous they became, as the flimsy clay walls that formed between neighboring plots would often fall in on diggers, burying them with their gold below.
Those who were lucky enough to fill their 40-pound sacks with silt had yet another challenge to endure before they'd even be able to determine whether their efforts had been fruitful: they had to carry the mud back up the ladders to reach the sifting stations at ground level nearly a quarter mile above them.
The Nearby Mining Town Had Women, Alcohol, And A Murder Rate Of 60-80 Unsolved Deaths Per Month
Since the Brazilian government had taken charge of the mine within three months of its opening, the presence of women and alcohol near the site was quickly banned. As a result, the nearby town became inundated with under-age prostitutes, drinking establishments, and – of course – brutal crime.
The town essentially invited conflict, and it averaged between 60 and 80 unsolved murders every month at the height of the mine's operation as it was a hub for underpaid, overworked men determined to strike it rich – and with bits of smuggled gold and cash stashed away in their pockets, everyone had a target on their back. In fact, it is estimated that as much as 90% of the gold recovered from the mine was smuggled out before being registered, though a total of 45 tons of gold was turned over.
The Mining Operation Was Eventually Put On Hold As The Area Flooded From Heavy Rainfall – It Is Believed That 20 to 50 Tons Of Gold Still Remain
By 1986 – six years after the mining operation had begun – the excavation site was officially put on hold after immense rainfall led to flooding in the area and severely limited miners' ability to access the plots below. Despite a number of futile efforts, the mine has remained closed ever since and has been overtaken by water, leaving a highly polluted lake.
The areas surrounding the mine are now considered dangerous as they are contaminated with high levels of mercury residue left over as a byproduct of the mining operations themselves. However, despite this contamination, rumors of a remaining 20-50 tons of gold sitting below the water continue to tempt individuals and mining companies alike.