Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mexico’s Tarahumara Are The World’s Greatest Ultrarunners—And The Latest Victims of The Drug War

Borderland Beat

The Sierras Tarahumara Indians: Mexico’s Unwilling Drug Runners
In drugwar reporting, articles of those living on the fringes of Mexican society is a rare occurrance.  The forgotten people, before the war, during, and in all probability after.  Proud citizens such as the  people of the Sierras ,and  the Mayans of the highlands of Chiapas and Mexican rain forest are largely ignored in and out of "war".  Most likely few of you have ever even heard of the indigenous peoples such as the Tarahumara Indians, or Black Seminoles, or the Mayan Zapatistas.  Not enough has been explored with respect to the drugwar, and how or if, the indigenous peoples have been affected.  I was pleased to see this article and wanted to share it with the good people of BB.
Paz, Chivis 
The Tarahumara’s native Copper Canyons have been invaded by narcotraficantes. (Jason Florio for Newsweek)
by Aram Roston for Newsweek Magazine
Camilo Villegas-Cruz is wistful when he talks about happier times, running in the shadowy depths of Sinforosa Canyon, in Mexico’s lawless Sierra Madre. A member of the Tarahumara Indian tribe, renowned for their agility and running endurance, Villegas-Cruz grew up competing in traditional rarajipari races, in which contestants kick a wooden ball along a rocky trail. But by the time he was 18 years old, he was running an entirely different kind of race—hauling a 50-pound backpack of marijuana across the border into the New Mexico desert.
Today, Villegas-Cruz is 21 and languishing in a U.S. federal prison near the Mojave Desert in Adelanto, Calif.
Villegas-Cruz’s unlikely journey from young athlete to drug mule shows how a little-known tribe, having been catapulted into the limelight by a runaway bestseller, is being ground down by forces out of its control, including Mexico’s all-consuming drug war, a disastrous economy, and an unrelenting drought.
In their native language, Villegas-Cruz’s people call themselves the Rarámuri—the light-footed ones. Their unique physical abilities were largely unknown to the outside world until 2009, when the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen made them famous. “When it comes to ultradistances,” author Christopher McDougall wrote, “nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner—not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner.” Among the characters in the book was a Tarahumara champion who once ran 435 miles, and another who won a 100-mile ultramarathon in Leadville, Colo., with almost casual ease. McDougall described the reclusive Tarahumara as “the kindest, happiest people on the planet,” and “benign as Bodhisattvas.”
Sinforosa Canyon (Photo:Richard Fischer)
The central message—that nature intended human beings to run—struck a chord in the United States, where Born to Run had a staggering impact on the amateur-running world (and on the $2.3 billion per year running-shoe business). The book triggered the barefoot running rage, including popular “foot gloves” that are as close as you can get to not wearing shoes at all.
But there’s a painful twist to this otherwise uplifting tale. According to defense lawyers, law-enforcement sources, and some Tarahumara Indians, drug traffickers are now exploiting the very Tarahumara trait—endurance—that has been crucial to their survival. Cartel operatives enlist impoverished Tarahumara Indians to make a grueling odyssey running drugs by foot across the border to the U.S.
Tarahumara Indians: Mexico’s Unwilling Drug Runners
 American defense lawyers on the southwest border say Tarahumara drug runners are a growing segment of their court-assigned clientele. Ken Del Valle, a defense attorney in El Paso, Texas, says he’s represented more than a dozen of the Indians since 2007, all in similar “backpacking” cases. Statistics are impossible to come by since law enforcement agencies don’t differentiate between Indians and other Mexicans, but Del Valle says it is precisely the Tarahumaras’ aptitude for endurance running that makes them so heavily recruited: the cartels “can put them in the desert and just say, ‘Go!’”
Del Valle says when the cases first starting appearing, U.S. courts were ill-equipped to handle the defendants. In one early case, he recalls, a Taruhamara was released when the court couldn’t find an interpreter. Now, lawyers and judges have a translator on call.
Don Morrison, an assistant federal public defender, first represented a Tarahumara in 2010. “I had no idea that right across the border there was a tribe of people who lived like this,” he told me. Many Tarahumara men still wear handmade sandals, skirt-like loin cloths, and brightly colored tunics. “If the drug war can start involving the Tarahumara,” he says, “then no one is immune.”
Until recently, the Tarahumara have been partially protected by the fearsome geography of the region they inhabit— the Sierra Madre mountains. The terrain here is psychedelic: plinths and boulders and impossible overhangs. The canyons stretch down more than a mile, though the Tarahumara navigate the cliffs as easily as staircases. But in the past decades, ranchers, miners, loggers, and narcos have moved ever closer into traditional Tarahumara enclaves. One of the last travel books to chronicle the region was the acclaimed God’s Middle Finger, published in 2008 by British writer Richard Grant. It describes a run-in with armed thugs, then closes with this thought: “I never wanted to set foot in the Sierra Madre again.”
Exacerbating the situation is what -locals say is the worst drought in 70 years. Even in the best of times, many Tarahumara live on the edge, tilling just enough to survive. Now farmers can’t get most food crops to grow, and last winter an unusual cold spell killed off much of what they did plant. That’s left the Indians desperate—and easy prey for wealthy drug barons looking for mules to take their product north.
“You get a guy who can go 50 miles with almost no water ... they’ve been indirectly training for [cross-border smuggling] for 10,000 years,” says McDougall, author of Born to Run. “It’s just tragic and disgraceful. This is a culture that has tried its best to stay out of this mess, all of these -messes—the messes of the world—and now the messes have come and found them.”
“I can’t even weigh the cultural impact of what the drug industry is doing to the Tarahumara,” says Randy Gingrich, an American based in the city of Chihuahua for 20 years. He spends much of his time in the Sierra Madre and his NGO, Tierra Nativa, battles threats to the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes from miners, loggers, drug dealers, and the occasional tourist scheme. He says one former drug baron once forcibly evicted Tarahumara from their ancestral homes so he could build a giant Astroturf ski slope overlooking the 6,000-foot Sinforosa Canyon. The project fell through when the trafficker died in a plane crash.
The Tarahumara are legendary for their endurance—and their reclusiveness. (Jason Florio for Newsweek)
In the town of Guachochi, a Tarahumara woman named Ana Cela Palma says she knows four Indians who have become “burros” and made the trek up to the U.S. for the cartels. None was paid what they were promised, she says. “They make it back, but in really bad condition,” she says. They were broken down physically, impoverished, and angry, she says.
Palma took me from a little settlement called Norigachi, along a ridge road cut by loggers, and into a small and tranquil valley. On the east side of the valley, past a shallow rise, we found a Tarahumara shaman, known as an owiruame, sitting on a pile of rocks. Jose Manuel Palma is 82 years old and a distant relative of Ana -Cela’s. The old man’s face lit up when I asked about running. He used to be a long-distance runner, he said, and was proud of it, though there aren’t a lot of races in the community anymore. His job now is healing the sick, mostly through dreams. The Tarahumara believe that people possess several souls, and that illness is the result of souls losing their balance. “This is the highest level of shamanism in the Sierra,” explains Gingrich. “They are called sonaderos—people who dream for others.”
Click to enlarge
Palma said “the traffickers have not approached the traditional leaders of the Tarahumara,” recruiting instead the younger people, who then recruit their friends. That’s how his nephew, Alfredo Palma, got involved. He was approached by a Tarahumara friend, who apparently was planning to carry a load for the traffickers and wanted company.
Court records in the U.S. show that Alfredo Palma, 29 years old, was offered up to $800 to make the dangerous trek across the border—more than a typical Tarahumara Indian might see in a year. As Palma and seven other backpackers trekked through the cold desert night, over the border into New Mexico, an infrared radar picked them up. Four men slipped away, but the border patrol found Alfredo and two others trying to hide behind some shrubs. Nearby, in their backpacks, was 260 pounds of Mexican pot.
Thirty yards away from where Jose Palma sat, a man used a horse to pull a plow through some dry fields, and the old Tarahumara said that the man was one of his sons. The old man said they were praying for rain, but in the meantime, his other son had moved to Chihuahua City to look for work.
It was the drought that also drove Camilo Villegas-Cruz to look for work elsewhere. His father couldn’t manage to grow enough beans, peas, and corn to survive on their little rancheria. So when Villegas-Cruz and one of his brothers were approached in early January 2009 by a stranger offering to pay them each $1,500 to be burros, they quickly accepted.
Late one evening, they shouldered their 50-pound backbacks and set out from a small farmhouse near the border. It was just a half-hour walk to a remote unguarded section of the barren border-crossing into the U.S. They carried smaller packs on their chests with food and water. Marching all night in the desert, they would stop when the sun rose every day, and would stash the huge marijuana packs and sleep. It was a tedious and grueling trek, and on the third day they woke up to the sound of a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter overhead.
They were arrested and charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute, and could have faced 20-year sentences. The American judge in Los Cruces, New Mexico, let them off easy, sending them back to Mexico, each with a sentence of three years of unsupervised release.
With the region suffering a terrible drought, families are struggling. (Jason Florio for Newsweek)
When Villegas-Cruz returned home, his parents were furious, he says. His mother sobbed. But soon enough, life went back to normal. He met a Tarahumara girl and fell in love. He went to traditional corn-beer festivals. He volunteered during a 50-mile Tarahuma race, holding a torch through the night to light the way for runners kicking a ball before them in the old way of the tribe. (The race had been organized by a legendary ultramarathoner, Micah True. True, an American nicknamed “Caballo Blanco,” spent years working on behalf of the Tarahumara, and was a central character in Born to Run. He died in March of heart disease, while running.)
But Villegas-Cruz’s family was still struggling. So once again, he set off to find work. First, he planted chilis for a farmer, earning $10 a day for backbreaking work in the searing summer heat. Then a more lucrative offer came. “I’ve got a job for you,” said a man nicknamed Cholo, recalls Villegas-Cruz. “It’s only going to be three days.”
He knew the risks but he says the money was too good to turn down. He says the traffickers took him to a store in town and bought him clothes, new shoes, and a coat to keep him warm while trekking during cold desert nights. There was a catch, however: the cost for the clothes, the cartel operatives told him, would come out of his $1,500 in pay. At least until he completed his mission, Villegas-Cruz was in debt to the smugglers, and couldn’t back out.
He was driven in the bed of a pickup truck to a little ranch near the U.S. border, where the backpacks were already prepared—heavy burlap sacks taped tight, full of compressed packages of marijuana. Villegas-Cruz shouldered the heavy load, and with a handful of other men, walked at night in his new shoes, behind the guide. They crossed the border within a half hour, and soon were walking through a desert in New Mexico. In unfamiliar territory, Villegas-Cruz got nervous and wanted to turn back. “I was really sad, and really scared,” he says. But without a guide, he knew he’d never find his way back to the Sinforosa Canyon.
Three days in, it began to rain, and as he trudged with his huge backpack full of marijuana, he slipped and fell. Covered in mud, he kept on walking. By now he was completely terrified, he says. On the morning of the fourth day, the Border Patrol found him and two others. The guide, who didn’t carry the same load as the “mules” he was leading, managed to slip away.
Villegas-Cruz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and reentering the country illegally, and this time he was sentenced to 46 months. “Someday,” he says, dressed in a prison uniform and sitting in a large room usually used for court proceedings, “I’ll get home and I’ll never come here again.”


  1. Know people who are Taruhmaran in Chihuas and they are great people. As long as there is a demand for Mexican weed, Independent growers and large scale organized traffickers will always use locations in Chihuas to grow. The problem is the little opportunities that folks have their to progress. After it's all said and done cuando la ambre aprieta what are these people going to do?

  2. This article made me crave " Pinole " con un baso de leche.

  3. great story, thanks for posting. These are amazing people, with little hope or opportunity. US prison is not justice for them.

  4. Going out of topic..why aren't Tarahumara used for Olypic marathons ? Just saying .

    1. Not to many races are 100 miles or 24 hours. I saw a documentary before on them and watched a couple tarahumaras drink way to much beer the day before a race in germany and the next day one placed 2nd and 2 others finished in top standings. All hungover. Those party animals can run. They should almost be protected like a national treasure.

  5. Some of you talk crap how all sicarios and people involed in drugs should die but don't be to quick to judge. I've mentioned this before, I'm from mexico but we were not that poor in Jalisco, we had everything we needed to live comfortably. My GF went to Mexico last year and she showed me pictures of her family in zacatecas, crazy shit!!! Her cousins who were 14 yrs old would go to monterrey to make "paletas/ice cream pops" for 4 months out of the year to make $. A 14 year old and a 15 year old on their own!!! Their dad built them a lil room on top of their house and they needed to get up there w a latter. They fell often when it rained. The point here is Narcos get children and eventually turn them up into sicarios, I don't blame them when they're sucked in because they have no opportinities. Its like Al Qaida, those guys are brought in since they're children, kinda sad.

  6. its sad but they choose to to do this.

  7. There is no god!

  8. Fuckin great story.Indigenous peoples all over this planet usually get marginalized.Sometimes they are their own worst enemy,but at the same time,all they ask is to be left alone.But,if there is something the more"important"side of our countries want,in their sphere of living space,then you see the worst of our human nature and greed.This is also the time when indigenous peoples are treated as though they don't count for nothing and are merely ignored and cast aside.Sometimes these peoples are relics of a gentler human side existing without greed of money and possessions.They will learn quickly enough,from us,how to use firearms and kill wonder they want nothing to do with us

  9. @10:39..
    Amigo you hit the nail on the head. Opression in Mexico: Let me count the ways...but if you are indigenous it is the worse you have almost zero opportunity and little or no education.

    @ 10:42 I was back east in the states strolling along a market place and very thirsty when I saw a man selling products and his sign said PINOLE, it was like a magnet for me. He had various products made from pinole and the proceeds benefitted farmers in the sierras. I chose a Pinole drink made with soy milk..and though not quite as my Buelita made but oh so good anyway.

    Sometimes I will post a story that I predict will get a lower number of views than other stories because of content, but is an imprtant story. But the interest in this one surprised me, and I am grateful for the interest. Mexico is a country ultra rich in culture, heritage, natural resource, Ethnicity and ancestry. Us Mexicans are a mixed bag of ethnicity-literally, but the indigenous people are today what they have always been, striding to not compromise their culture.

    I am concerned that people only see the horrific violence in some places of Mexico and get the wrong impression of the nation. Thinking all Mexicans are criminals, and all of Mexico is on fire with violence. That simply is not true....It would be as though a person would judge the states based upon reading about the violence and intentional homicide in DC or STL.....Paz, Chivis

  10. At Chivis,
    Thanks for the article, I 100% agree with you. Admist all the violence and cruel things " Mexicans, Hispanos or Latinos " are doing to each other, there is still good amongst all the evil in Mexico. It's just hard to swallow all the bad things that are happening en la tierra Mexicana.
    Right now we are seeing something that is pure evil and greed driven. It doesn't take much for one to sit back and rationalize the problems that Mexico is having. Todo por el " dinero ", for the better lack of not letting others progress.
    I always speak to different people of various cultures who are so willing to help one another. But something undoubtly we have as " Mexicanos " and I am not throwing us all in the bag is that we are always envious of others and can't see someone progresar or do something better without " hating " as the young crowd says. Well for those of you who ask how this pertains with the " Narco war ". It all started with envy and greed. Not co-inciding with one another and not wanting to share the piece of the pie. Killing off one cartel for another, let's not be ignorant. The Mafia and traketoros have always existed and while there is consumers they will never really cease to exist. It's so much deeper than that we know but could take days to touch all the topics.
    " La embidia es corriente "

  11. these people are simple folks... i dont belive they decided to carry drugs across the border.... i belive they where made to work for the drug runners.

  12. What a sad, sad story.

    But, thank you for writing it.

  13. Very interesting story, it's sad to see the state of the native mexican/indian peoples.

    -El Gato Blanco

  14. .... i HAVE a friend who does missionary work for these people, and on occasion, tells me stories about these people, and their poverty stricken way of life... an american whose life style is nothing, compared to these people, i am TRULY GRATEFUL THAT GOD BLESSES ME THAT OTHERS CAN'T UNDERSTAND....




  15. Agree There is places & people in Mexico that still untainted glad you post this made me lil happy

  16. Awful. Real shame. Beautiful people and region of the world. That maps out of date there no longer is a gas station at Napuchis Junction. Safe travels.

    It does not matter one iota what we do on earth to each other.It is down to the individuals personal morality and sense of right and wrong.I have no problem with anyones belief in a god.But right now,here,it is down to each individual.And as individuals,collectively we are getting worse.There is no law for the poor and disenfranchized,there is no law for these indigenous peoples.Money is our belief system rght now,a grim prospect i know.But for the time being,this is where most of our problems begin and end.

  18. Wow, very interesting. I think the Tarahumaras are awesome people. Leave it up to the narcos to mess up a good thing. Couldn't the narcos just all die off from AIDS or something? I mean, they are always stroking each other ja ja !

  19. .

    Message for -->>

    "There is no God! June 25, 2012 4:16 PM"
    ... << --

    My response:

    "Forget the word 'GOD' and now, ask yourself '¿HOW is it possible that you are HERE on THIS planet'? SOME MIRACULOUS C.R.E.A.T.I.V.E F.O.R.C.E. CREATED Y.O.U., 'YOU'!!, AND EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS ON T.H.I.S. P'L'A'N'E'T! How has ALL of what EXISTS for you to see, sense, taste Been Possible WITHOUT YOUR INPUT!! and yet, you use the words "There is NO God !! When you cut your finger with a knife SOMETHING begins to happen in YOUR BODY and the cut is soon repaired WITHOUT YOUR DIRECT INPUT. If you say "Do Not Heal!!" your command has NO effect and the cut in your body IS HEALED! Do Not Take The Life You Were Given FOR GRANTED or else you will not be able to admit that There Is Some magnificent POWER FORCE Making Life EXIST & repairing itself, Reproducing itself ...



  20. This story really moved me i think Mexico has gotit together


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