The village of Creel was the site of narco-killings in broad daylight that shocked Mexico's conscience last year, but the Tarahumara Indians' subjugation to the cartels extends to even the most remote corners of their rugged lands, reports Yemeli Ortega. (Photo: ThierryB / Flickr)
Violence linked to drug-trafficking does not spare the most isolated indigenous communities. A report from Barrancas del Cobre among the Tarahumara Indians.
The region with the richest biodiversity in North America is located in Mexico's far north, at 1420 meters of elevation, in the heart of the Western Sierra Madre. These lands, rugged and inhospitable, have been inhabited by Tarahumara, "the light-footed people," for close to 2,000 years. Today, these peaceful people are threatened by narco-trafficking which threatens the very essence of their culture and the equilibrium of their environment.
"Narco-trafficking violence is a thousand-headed snake. When you cut one head off, a hundred grow in its place," explains a Tarahumara Indian, who intends to stay alive, and, consequently, to remain anonymous. "Don't think my word is worthless," he defends himself, "but what I'm going to relate to you could cost me my skin."
After a silence as pregnant as his gaze, the Indian ends up talking:
"They come; they kill the trees and afterwards we have to choose: either we leave our lands or we stay to grow their drugs."
The Tarahumara people pay a heavy price to defend their forests, which hold the ancestral secrets of their culture, their cosmology and their very lives. "People don't commercialize their family. No one can sell what belongs to Mother Earth and Father God," says the outraged Indian, who draws most of his food and medicinal plants from the forest.
"The forest is the soul of the fire," he continues as he watches wood burn in the hearth. It's also the soul of music: without wood, there would be no more flutes, violins, or drums, indispensable elements for traditional rites and dances.
Landowners Yesterday, Subjugated Today
The invasion of woodcutters and narcos on lands that were nonetheless legally recognized as the property of the Tarahumara in 1960 has placed the Tarahumara in a relationship of subjugation. They've gone from the status of the historic landowners of these wooded lands to that of underpaid employees of an unscrupulous enterprise that the Whites and Métis conduct as though these forests and these indigenous peoples belonged to them.
When local authorities are questioned on the subject, they counter with silence and stasis. For over thirty years, a network of corrupt local politicians and drug traffickers do their business over fraudulently obtained contracts for forest exploitation. They have constructed several landing strips for large-scale transport of marijuana and opium cargo, the ever-growing demand for which is right there: on the other side of the American border.
The Tarahumara lands are in the grip of the Sinaloa cartel, controlled by El Chapo Guzmán, the most-wanted narco-trafficker. He is sought not only by the Mexican government, but also by the United States and Interpol. He had been captured in 1993 and sentenced to twenty years of prison with no eligibility for parole, but once behind bars, Guzmán quickly took over again. He was able to buy favors from most of the guards and even the director of the prison himself -- who saw to it that Guzmán enjoyed exceptional treatment.
El Chapo Guzmán at the Center of Killings
At the end of a "magistrates' plan" and a few days before his extradition to the United States, El Chapo Guzmán escaped, hidden in a small van that carried the dirty laundry. Sixty-eight people were implicated in the escape!
Since then, Guzmán not only rapidly resumed control over Sinaloa, but also set himself the goal of eliminating the competition, that is the Gulf, Juarez and Tijuana cartels, at the price of an escalation of deaths and chaos.
In this Mexican narco-trafficking war, massacres of unspeakable violence are commonplace, even in the most inaccessible parts of the country, such as the canyons of the Sierra Tarahumara.
Last August, Mexico discovered with horror the killing that took place in broad daylight in Creel, a little village set at the summit of the Sierra Madre. Four luxury vans arrived out of nowhere and their occupants fired on a hundred people, leaving many wounded and 13 dead, including several children and teenagers.
The official version tells of a "settling of scores" between narcos; the truth is that it was innocents who paid the price. "Events like what happened in Creel recur regularly all over the Sierra Tarahumara, but the national press doesn't talk about it because it's controlled," complains Ernesto Palencia, a lawyer and member of the NGO, Alianza Sierra Madre.
This activist with the intense gaze tells about the emblematic case of Choreachi, a little village perched in the forest of the Guadalupe y Calvo municipality, in southern Chihuahua. For 200 years, the native community has been conducting a silent struggle to preserve its forest, since -- as for many of the Tarahumara -- they deem their mission to be avoiding the destruction of these lands at all costs, in order to preserve the balance between "the upper world and the lower world."
Trials Fixed in Advance
"They've been the object of false accusations and many of them are in prison today," the lawyer says. "The trials are fixed in advance; the Tarahumara enjoy neither a defense lawyer nor an interpreter who speaks their language."
All these human rights violations put the Indians in a position of complete vulnerability in a context that was already far from favorable to them.
For beyond the fight to preserve their lands, their culture and their peace, the Tarahumara are fighting for their own survival. They must confront an ever-more-difficult climate, with ever-more-scanty harvests, in a region where employment opportunities are virtually nonexistent, not to mention the lack of medical care and education.
"The situation is far more complex than people believe," says Victor Martinez, an anthropologist who has specialized in the Tarahumara culture for over twenty years. He explains that if certain Indians grow drugs on their lands, it's so they don't die of hunger -- or a bullet to the head: "Could you blame them? Judge them?"
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
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