The Rarámuri Crisis: Extreme Poverty (Briefly) to the Fore in Mexico

Drought in Mexico

In the midst of Mexico’s senseless “Drug War” and the erroneous belief that drug-trafficking is the root of the country’s evils, Mexicans were given a powerful reminder last week of the deeper crisis affecting their fellow citizens.

In the midst of Mexico’s senseless “Drug War” and the erroneous belief that drug-trafficking is the root of the country’s evils, Mexicans were given a powerful reminder last week of the deeper crisis affecting their fellow citizens. A video posted on social media sites concerning a severe drought in the state of Chihuahua saw the extreme poverty and malnutrition afflicting the region’s indigenous population highlighted in the media for a brief few days.

Chihuahua, a vast, dry and mountainous state bordering Texas and New Mexico, is home to several indigenous groups, the largest of which, the Rarámuri (or Tarahumara), inhabit the region surrounding one of Mexico’s most spectacular natural wonders, the Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon. The Rarámuri – whose name means “those who run fast”, for their famed bare-footed running ability – number some 60,000 in the eponymous Sierra Tarahumara where they took refuge after the Spanish conquest.

On January 15, a video was posted on Twitter of a local official claiming that as many as 50 Rarámuri had committed suicide because of famine. The Mexican media immediately jumped on the story, portraying the isolated Tarahumara region as “our Somalia”. While the mass suicide is now believed to be an exaggeration (no evidence exists that it took place), state authorities have since confirmed that 28 Rarámuri died from malnutrition last year, with a further 47 victims in 2010.

The hambruna, or famine, afflicting the Rarámuri has been attributed to a brutal winter and the worst drought in the region for 71 years.  But the media coverage brought attention to the wider conditions of extreme poverty in which some 12 million Mexicans live. Last year, the Hospital Teresita in the Tarahumara town of Creel (a popular stop on the famous Copper Canyon Railway) treated 250 children for malnutrition, including 25 severe cases.

The state of Chihuahua is also a key battlefield in Mexico’s “drug wars”. The notorious El Chapo Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel rules the roost in much of the state, although its rivalry with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization (or Juárez Cartel) has unleashed the heaviest of the country’s gang violence.

Gulf of Inequality

Despite the fact that some 60% of Mexicans are classed as mestizo (a mix of European and indigenous blood), racism and sheer ignorance of the country’s indigenous population is no less common than in former white-settler colonies like the US and Canada.

As the crisis in Chihuahua was co-opted by mainstream media outlets, most described the affected population as Tarahumara – after the Sierra Tarahumara where the majority of them live. But the name actually has racist connotations for the group itself, which prefers to be known as Rarámuri. Spanish invaders had struggled with the pronunciation of the original name.

Over the years, the Rarámuri have repeatedly suffered drought, famine and other environmental crises without the blitz of media attention seen in recent days. According to a UN report on indigenous peoples in Latin America, the six most deprived municipalities in Mexico are all to be found in the mountains of Chihuahua. The region has an infant mortality rate of 12.5 per thousand live births; 8.3 of whom die of malnutrition.

The federal government initially denied the reports that a “famine” was taking place. But as political rivals rushed to demand aid relief and the Mexican Red Cross confirmed it had expanded its expeditions to the region this winter, the Felipe Calderón administration announced the provision of 14,000 emergency food packets and a collection point for donations in Mexico City’s Zócalo square.

Governor César Duarte, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is currently favorite to take the Mexican presidency in July, quickly moved to take political advantage of the crisis. Duarte appeared at aid distribution sites to tell Rarámuri queuing for food and blankets that they are a “proud and strong” people and, after all, “the owners of this land”; the latter a gross statement of ignorance.

Chihuahua is a state rich in natural resources – from gold and silver to forests and rivers – but the massive investment by US and Canada-based corporations through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has done nothing to benefit the communities that have dwelled in the region for centuries.  At the same time, subsidized US agricultural imports have devastated the livelihood of local farmers, who have been increasingly driven to produce illicit crops like marijuana and opium poppies.

The Calderón administration, which has very close ties to the US, remains fully committed to the neoliberal model, and its weak social welfare programs – such as the much-touted Oportunidades scheme – don’t address the fundamental economic injustices at the heart of the NAFTA agreement. The right-wing National Action Party (PAN) has gambled its legacy on the militarization of the war on drugs while largely ignoring the systemic inequality at the root of the illegal trade.

According to recent figures by the National Council of the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), some 52 million Mexicans (or 46.2% of the population) live in poverty, of which some 12 million are in extreme poverty; an increase of nearly 2%, or three million people, from recent years. What’s more, these figures are widely questioned because of the government’s very low measure of what constitutes poverty.

Armed Capitalism and the Drug Trade

State authorities and the Catholic Church in Chihuahua have largely blamed the food crisis and ongoing displacement of the Rarámuri on the country’s drug-trafficking gangs.  Héctor Fernando Martínez, the parish priest of Creel, told national daily La Jornada: “Narco, not lack of food, is the biggest problem in the mountains [of Chihuahua]… They arrive and displace people from their lands, take their houses, and through fear leave them to either grow [marijuana or poppies] or get out of their villages.”

While it’s true that criminal groups have tormented the Rarámuri and other local communities for years, many of the state’s rural inhabitants have had little choice but to produce drug crops in the face of subsidized imports. Furthermore, while farmers receive a higher price for growing marijuana or poppies than their now-redundant traditional crops, the rewards are miniscule in comparison to the profits made by organized crime lords, and the threat of violent reprisals is an ever-present reality.

The government of Chihuahua has been repeatedly accused of supporting the locally-based Juárez Cartel in its turf war with the Sinaloa organization. In October, Governor Duarte unbelievably claimed that all kidnapping cases in the state had been solved and vastly exaggerated the number of arrests and prosecutions made by state authorities.

While most of the violence in Mexico today is blamed on warring drug gangs, well-documented human rights violations by state forces and private security companies are widely ignored. The reality is that the lines between drug gangs, police, the military, paramilitary groups and corporate security firms have been profoundly blurred in parts of the country like Chihuahua, where official impunity allows abuses to go unpunished.

Upside Down World contributor Dawn Paley recently reported on the controversy surrounding Canadian corporation Minefinders, which opened a gold and silver mine near the mountain town of Madera four years ago, displacing more than 60 families in the process. Protesters involved in a blockade of the site were threatened by armed men in civilian clothes, while one of the organizers, Dante Valdez Jiménez – an elementary school teacher – was later attacked and beaten in front of his students by anonymous assailants. None of which ever makes headlines in the mainstream media.

Meanwhile, the struggle for rural workers’ rights continues. A march organized by the National Peasant Confederation (CNC) is currently underway from Chihuahua to Mexico City, protesting the lack of support by the federal government for twenty areas of Mexico affected by drought and demanding long-lasting solutions to the neglected effects of climate change.

The National Committee of Rural & Fishing Unions (CONORP), one of the organizations participating in the march, has warned of an “Arab Spring”-like effect should the government not act – referring to the food shortages that sparked uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In this big election year, watch for the peasant struggle to become a political football as poverty briefly overtakes the “Drug War” as the crisis du jour.

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