Impunity and violence in Sierra Tarahumara

Homicide has been the leading cause of death for two years as drug violence rips through the Mexican state of Chihuahua.


    Ana Lozano brushes a hand across her face to stifle a tear. After three years she is still angry.

    In August 2008 armed men entered the village of Creel, a mountain tourist town in the foot hills of the Sierra Tarahumara, and shot 12 young people and a baby to death at a village dance. Ana's son Oscar was among them. He was 19-years-old and had just started University. The local police were inexplicably absent whilst the killing occurred.

    Ana sits in her hair dresser salon as the shadows of dusk fall outside. Her face bears the signs of resignation. She speaks softly, almost gently of the obstacles she faced as she sought the killers of her son, of the policeman friend who told her early on to give up, that it had already been decided that the case was going nowhere. She speaks of finding out who the killers are and telling police, but in the end she concluded that it was useless to rely on the State authorities.

    "My sister and I dedicated ourselves to finding out who did this for three years and we saw many things, how the drugs were distributed, and how the police was in complicity with the criminals, how the Government was involved and protecting them."

    She is the only relative of the murdered youths that we could find to talk to us. One of the other parents had himself been killed whilst investigating the killing of his son. Another parent said that the groups' usual spokesperson, Yuriana Almendrez, had been forced to flee to the US in the last couple of weeks after being threatened. Al Jazeera repeatedly tried to reach Yuriana on her cellphone, but without success.

    A violent land

    Ana Lozano's 19 year old son was shot dead by unidentified armed men [John Holman/Al Jazeera]

    For many Creel is the entry point for the mountainous Sierra Tarahumara, part of the longer Sierra Madre mountain chain. It's located in Chihuahua State in the North of Mexico, where homicide has been the leading cause of death in the last two years. The Sierra Madre itself has a murder rate far above the national average.

    Conversely, it is also a tourist attraction; both national and international visitors flock to see the copper Canyon, the deepest in North America, and the Tarahumara indigenous people, famed for their ability to run huge distances.

    However, behind the carefully constructed tourist scene lies the other business in the Sierra Tarahumara. Drugs are the local cash crop, and marijuana and heroin poppy plantations lie hidden in the folds of the mountains. Farmers here have been forced by economic necessity to grow "the crop that pays" which they then sell on to drug cartels. It is common to see them tending to their crops with a rifle slung over their shoulder.

    Illegal drug production and it's attendant problems have made the Sierra Tarahumara a highly violent region for the past 40 years. The rugged mountain zone is difficult for police to penetrate and problems are resolved by the gun, be it a family blood feud or a dispute over a drug haul.

    But lately things have been getting worse.

    Battling for drug routes

    Miroslava Breach was born in these hills and has spent the last 15 years covering them for national newspaper La Jornada. In July of this year she reported on a startling phenomenon, plane loads of armed men descending into the region apparently with the objective of opening up new drug routes out of the mountains. Locals indicated that the men were from the Sinaloa cartel, under the control of Mexico's most powerful drug Lord "El Chapo".

    Ms Breach says that violence has subsequently ignited in the region as the Sinaloa Cartel fights for the routes with "La Linea", the armed wing of the Juarez Cartel.

    "The cartel of Sinaloa has made inroads to most of the production areas. There are not too many zones now in which the Juarez cartel is in control."

    She adds that the gunmen brought in from outside the region by battling cartels have made the violence more generalised in the Sierra Tarahumara.

    "Even though before the gangs were enemies, they were all from the sierra. They knew not to kill those not involved. They took more responsibility fortheir actions, because it's where they lived. Now people are coming in from outside the region and they don't care about this code."

    The violence unleashed has decimated some villages in the zone. Mexican investigative magazine Proceso reports the evacuation of one village threatened by armed men in April. At the end of June local newspaper El Heraldo de Chihuahua reported an ambush in which police and millitary were attacked by a criminal group who then fled, leaving a camp of 60 provisional houses and 50 vehicles behind them. At the end of August a grave was found with seven bodies in Guachochi, a municipality that Al Jazeera passed through on our visit.

    A difficult task

    The Governor of Chihuahua, Cesar Duarte is adamant that reforms to the legal system are now cutting down on violence in the State.

    "Now more than 98 per cent of those arrested are not released, we've achieved a profound change in our judicial system that is allowing us to combat impunity."

    When asked by Al Jazeera what he planned to do to combat the wave of violence in the Sierra Madre he replied,

    "In the last year the levels of violence have decreased. International and National Security organisations agree regarding this. In Chihuahua there has been a notable decrease in kidnapping and criminal homicides."

    However Chihuahua still sits comfortably in first place in the National Security Ministry table of criminal homicides with 2,147 so far this year.

    Writer Richard Grant says that even with a better police system, enforcing law in the Sierra Tarahumara is impractical at best. He lived in the area for several months in 2008, writing a book about his experience, before being hunted through the woods by would be killers.

    "Even with an honest police force, this would be a very difficult place to police. Geographically, the mountains are so rugged and remote, and drugs and the violence are so deeply entrenched. Given that the police and the army are involved in the drug trafficking themselves, law and order is clearly not a possibility."


    In the areas around Creel, even milk and bread delivery trucks need to travel in convoys accompanied by police to avoid becoming a victim of the cartels' violence [John Holman/Al Jazeera]

    On our last afternoon in Creel, the sun beams down on the dusty main street. We are ready to leave, and so are several milk and bread delivery trucks parked outside the small police station.

    They are waiting for their escort, policemen clad in camouflage fatigues and balaclavas. After four hold ups this year, even the big grocery companies are feeling the tension in the mountains. They only travel together, and with their borrowed armed guards now. The police pull on their bulletproof vests and strap on their machine guns. The convoy heads out at high speed, one police car in front, one behind.

    The region they leave behind does not enjoy the same protection. Left to the mercy of fighting drug cartels, the people living in these mountains have little to look forward to but more violence ahead.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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