Tarahumara Indians line up to receive aid, including food and water, in… (Carlos Villalobos / El Heraldo…)
Reporting from Mexico City — It took false reports of mass suicide for Mexicans to rally in great number to the aid of the legendary Tarahumara Indians, who are facing a season of starvation. But publicity about their plight has exposed the chronic marginalization and growing perils, including drug violence, faced by many indigenous communities, activists say.
Members of the Tarahumara community "die every year from hunger; it's just that this year, it's worse," said Liliana Flores, a founder of the El Barzon organization, which works with poor campesinos and indigenous peoples.
A severe drought — the worst since Mexico started keeping rainfall records 71 years ago, officials say — compounded by a bone-snapping freeze killed off most of the Tarahumaras' sustenance crops of corn, beans and squash.
The Tarahumara, like many indigenous communities, are among Mexico's poorest people, living at the margins of mainstream society with limited access to healthcare and education, the so-called Other Mexico. Many of the Tarahumara dwell in caves or the most rudimentary of housing in the rugged Copper Canyon region of Mexico's Chihuahua state.
They are also world famous for their skill in long-distance running, often able to outpace Olympic-quality marathoners, dashing along with nothing more than huarache sandals on their feet. They call themselves Raramuri, which means "foot-runner."
The drought hit seven Mexican states last year, devastating more than 2 million acres of crops and killing huge numbers of livestock. The government has been trucking in water and sending food for months, but the aid has been provided largely under the radar until this week.
Over the weekend, a man describing himself as a peasant leader, Ramon Gardea, went on social networks to report that about 50 Tarahumara Indians had committed suicide in recent months because they were despondent over not being able to feed their children.
The "news" that a people so renowned for endurance were being driven to suicide struck a chord throughout the nation, and emergency aid drives revved up in Mexico City and elsewhere.
State and federal government officials, along with Roman Catholic priests who have worked with the Tarahumara for decades, quickly denied that there had been a rash of suicides. Still, the reports brought attention to the crisis facing as many as 200,000 indigenous people and the fact that the response is often piecemeal.
The Tarahumara have preserved their religion and cultural traditions. Yet they are not as isolated as they once were, and some of the more negative components of mainstream Mexico, such as junk food and cheap tequila, have taken their toll on the population.
More serious are threats from drug traffickers who have steadily moved into the Chihuahua canyons and mountains, often seizing Tarahumara land to plant marijuana and poppies, residents say.
Logging, much of it illegal, has stripped the land; gold and silver mining for years has provided a few jobs but no shared wealth.
All of these long-term problems have contributed to the plight of the Tarahumara, said Father Javier Avila, a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in the Sierra Tarahumara, as the mountains are known, for 37 years.
"Every year [government programs] look at the effects but never the causes," Avila said. "Why only when the community is reaching its limits do the government and society realize that the indigenous exist?"
The federal government says it has provided about $70 million in food, clothing, water and other aid over the last six months.
The Tarahumara grow crops primarily to feed themselves; the drought and freeze wiped out last year's crops and also destroyed the roots, making it impossible to plant anew last summer, said Arturo Fuentes, an official with the government's social development agency. By the end of last year, the few reserves that the community had were dwindling.
"We are at the most grave moment now," Fuentes said, "when there is no food."