Arica, Chile — Mireia Godoy, 74, no longer remembers what her neighborhood was called when she came here more than 20 years ago.
“Now they call it Cerro Chuño, but no one wants to come here. Before, the bus and everything was on the doorstep,” she said.
The main street of Cerro Chuño, a slum east of Arica, a northern Chilean city buried on the edge of the Atacama Desert, appears to have been ravaged by war. The cracked pavement is littered with trash, and a thick layer of brown dust covers several open businesses.
But beneath the dust lies a deadly secret. Cerro Chuño is highly contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, which can pose serious health problems.
“Ask me about my ailments, I have them all,” Godoy laughs melancholy, listing bone, heart, foot, and hand problems.
“It’s all thanks to Reed,” she explains. “It’s because of the toxic gas dump where our sons were playing. How many children must have died here.”
Founded in the early 1990s when the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet ended, Cerro Chuño has become home to immigrants and refugees from across Latin America. However, thanks to the long-term effects of international mining agreements, Cerro Chuño is also a site of environmental pollution, leading to health problems, instability and criminal activity.
The Chilean government has taken steps in recent months to shut down criminal networks rooted in Cerro Chuño. The Venezuela-based faction of the Toren de Aragua gang uses the neighborhood as its Chilean headquarters for drug and human trafficking, extortion and torture of immigrants and refugees.
The gang is known to be one of the most violent criminal gangs in Latin America. Police in Arica continued raids in Cerro Chuño, including on January 16, after a massive operation to overthrow the faction in July.
But little has been done to combat the environmental crisis in the region.
“There is no approach to the environment,” Arica’s government environment officer, Diego Arellano, told Al Jazeera.
In 1984, before the district was built, Chilean mining company Promel reached an agreement to allow Swedish multinational Boliden to dump about 20,000 tons of toxic mining waste in Arica.
The deal includes a promise that the slag from the mine will contain gold and valuable minerals, which will bring wealth and employment to the region, said an anthropologist at the Catholic University of Chile. Rodrigo Pino, who has worked with the community for years, explained.
Pino said the community was told that the waste would be properly treated before being buried.
But mining waste was largely forgotten until the beginning of the next decade when public housing for low-income households was built in the neighborhood. Cerro Chuño was built a few meters away from a toxic waste dump. It consisted of about 1,000 small houses, most with one bathroom and kitchen.
In the late 1990s, families began to realize that cancer, breathing difficulties, allergies, miscarriages and birth defects were linked to the toxic mountain on which their home stood.
Demonstrations began, and eventually Chile enacted the Polymetals Act in 2012, promising health care and relocation of residents to clean areas, and measures to reduce pollution.
The government has also announced plans to demolish houses in Cerro Chuño to prevent further exposure to heavy metal poisoning. However, only a few rows of buildings were eventually demolished.
In 2021, the United Nations estimates that 12,000 people will be affected by toxic waste in the region, some of whom will die. However, environmental officer Arellano told Al Jazeera that the Chilean government believes arsenic in the ground has stabilized at levels that are no longer dangerous and that the site is now free of contamination.
Cerro Chuño is now a hub for refugees and migrants due to Chile’s economic and political stability. Peruvians, Bolivians, Haitians and more recently Colombians and Venezuelans have joined their poor Chilean neighbors in renting once-abandoned homes to avoid paying rent or electricity bills.
“Despite the poison, we have nowhere else to go,” said Flandre Acosta, 25, who arrived two years ago from Valencia, Venezuela, fleeing unrest with his father, wife and newborn daughter.
Tired of living in cramped conditions, Acosta is building a new home on land he purchased near his current property. We use every material we can find, moving contaminated stones and dust.
Acosta admits her little daughter gets sicker than usual, but says, “Polymetallic — that’s not what we have in mind. Almost every week, she seems to get the flu.
A woman named Angela asked to withhold her last name for her safety, but said her daughter had been sick every month since she arrived in Cerro Chunyo. could not tell her why.
But contamination isn’t Angela’s main concern, she whispers.
Threatened by members of the Tren de Aragua gang, Angela had to close down the restaurant that provided her family with a living. “I was Colombian, so they took me out like that,” Angela said, placing his hands on his chest and pointing his fingers in the shape of a gun. I don’t speak.”
When asked about the violence that has stigmatized their neighbors, many avoid going into detail. “As long as you don’t interfere with anyone, you’ll be fine,” said Marcelina Camacho, 69, a Dominican woman who owns a small grocery store.
Calculating the number of people who live in Cerro Chuño is difficult due to the high turnover rate. With a population of almost 200,000, the border town of Arica is a transit point for refugees and migrants coming to Chile from nearby Peru and Bolivia.
For families like 30-year-old Marian from Venezuela, Cerro Chuño is a place to bounce back from a difficult migration.
While cleaning the entrance to the temporary housing, Marian explained that she and her family had tried their luck crossing the dangerous Darien Gap through the jungles of Panama on their way to the United States.
However, the route became too dangerous, so they changed direction and decided to head for Chile instead. They arrived two months before him. While watching her daughter chase a stray cat, Marian said she had yet to hear anything about Cerro Chuño’s pollution or gangs.
In its 2021 report, the United Nations called for “urgent measures” to be taken in the region to “safely return hazardous waste to Sweden for proper disposal.”
However, the situation for people living in and around Cerro Chunyo has not changed.
A group of mothers living in the area near Cerro Chuño formed a group called the Mamitas del Promo or “Lead Mothers”. Faced with chronic heavy metal exposure, they wrote to the authorities asking that the government implement the safety measures outlined in her 2012 Polymetals Act.
In the last reply they received, dated July 2022, the Chilean government, led by social democrat Gabriel Boric, assured the group that the regime was “working” on the issue.
“They have had all the information over the years, but they have not removed or treated the toxic waste that we breathe in every day,” said Luz, the group’s leader. Ramirez told Al Jazeera.
“They know we are dying. Their inaction makes them complicit in this crime.”