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Drug Lords Vs. The Tarahumara : Trafficers Are Invading Mexico's Most Spectacular Forests, Destroying Ancient Trees--and Any Natives Who Object

January 09, 1994|Alan Weisman | Contributing editor Alan Weisman's last piece for this magazine was on northern Spain's carnaval

THERE WASN'T MUCH MORE THE OLD Tarahumara Indian healer, Agustin Ramos, could do for the man taking refuge in Pino Gordo, high in Mexico's western Sierra Madre: All the medicine that grows in the Sierra couldn't reverse the damage that automatic weapons had wreaked upon 30-year-old Gumersindo Torres. Nevertheless, he entered his dream to ask his god, Onuruame, what might bring the broken young man some relief.

Presently, the One Who Is Father appeared behind his closed eyelids, looking much like Ramos himself: headband, single-thonged sandals strapped to bare legs, a breechclout secured by a tasseled girdle covering his loins. Onuruame directed the old man to prepare poultices and teas of verbena and chuchufate , plants found in Pino Gordo's ancient forest, to soothe Torres' bruises and restore his tranquillity.

Torres had come because his own ancestral village, two days away either by foot or truck via the new logging road, was now the most dangerous place in the Sierra. His community, Coloradas de La Virgen, lies at the edge of a monstrous abyss in the Mexican state of Chihuahua called the Barranca Sinforosa, about 250 miles south of El Paso, Tex. Tarahumaras have lived and gathered there for at least 6,000 years, but until the family of murderers who now ruled the area could be brought to justice, no Indian in Coloradas de La Virgen was safe.

On that chilly night in November, 1992, when Torres was left for dead, two of the killers had burst into the church where Tarahumara men and women were swaying to the violins and drumbeats of their ritual prayer dance. First the gunmen shot Torres' brother, the local Indian vice-governor, just as they had slain his uncle, a commissioner, a year earlier. With Torres, who they suspected was involved with environmental groups lately meddling in these mountains, they took their time, blasting him in the right shoulder, then the left, then shattering one of his hips with an AK-47.

He survived because their parting shot to his head, fired as he writhed on the floor, only creased his scalp. Afterward, unable to walk his fields or chop firewood, Torres was taken to Pino Gordo and then given a small stipend from funds that had trickled down to the Indians through a succession of international environmental organizations. Among his objectives: to help this community resist the scourge of opium and marijuana that had poisoned his own village and whose spreading cultivation now threatened one of the continent's most crucial ecosystems and its people.

But how? The bullet holes that Torres insisted on showing me, sprinkled around his broken body by Coloradas de la Virgen's narcotraficantes , were sickening reminders of how defenseless one of Mexico's largest Indian tribes had become. For centuries, the Tarahumara, who today number 50,000, had mostly known peace and seclusion. They lived in tiny enclaves dispersed through the Sierra's labyrinthine terrain, which they bridged by becoming the world's greatest distance runners, often covering 60 miles between settlements in a single jaunt. (In their own language, the Tarahumara call themselves Raramuri--foot runner.) Now I was hearing that many non-Indians who had invaded this precipitous country in recent years to steal the Tarahumaras' timber were also clearing their land to reap a growing harvest of pot and raw opium gum.

Indians who protested have been routinely shot, and local authorities have been either too intimidated or too implicated to protect them. Few of the mild, agrarian Tarahumara own firearms or would use them on humans if they did. Have any of their dream-healers, I asked, pressed God for a cure for the narcotic-induced death now spreading throughout the Sierra?

In fact, old Agustin Ramos told me, he had tried several times: lately, the dreaded plantios were blossoming even around his remote Pino Gordo, among freshly charred remains of some of the oldest trees in Mexico. Each time, though, he got the same frustrating answer:

"Onuruame can't destroy plants that are also part of his creation," he said. "We will have to save ourselves from narcotrafico ."

WHEN, FOR WHATEVER DIVINE MOTIVE, onuruame created opium poppies, enabling humans subsequently to manufacture heroin, he did so not here but in Asia. Chinese traders who settled in the town of Culiacan--today northwestern Mexico's leading cocaine distribution center--brought the first seeds during the 1930s. The vast mountain range that paralleled the Pacific coastal plains seemed a logical, virtually unpatrollable place to cultivate both the colorful flowers and another Far East import, Cannabis sativa --marijuana. Few human beings then realized the troubling implications, not only for Tarahumara Indians but for the Sierra itself, because no one yet understood that Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental was the richest biosystem in North America.

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