In the 1600s, Northern Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara tribe escaped Spanish incursions by moving deep into the rugged Sierra Madre. There, they cultivated the steep canyons, maintained their cultural identity and traditions, and developed into some of the world’s best long-distance runners, able to run for days without stopping. The Tarahumara people have earned international renown for their phenomenal marathon endurance. Tarahumara runners have appeared on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. They’re the subject of the best-selling book Born to Run, and they compete in many international races, yet many of their villages still lack running water and electricity. As they’ve suffered drought and famine, Mexico’s drug cartels have preyed on them. Cartels clear-cut their ancient pine forests. They converted their land to marijuana and opium poppy fields, and forced these peaceful reclusive people to work for them or leave.
At Texas Monthly, Ryan Goldberg tells the tribe’s story — which is Mexico’s story — and how cartels now offer the Tarahumara endurance runners money to run drugs across the border. The dire need to keep their families fed and keep violence out of their villages has turned too many village men into felons after they get caught at the border. Although Goldberg’s article isn’t polemical, the narrative puts the responsibility in the hands of Western consumers: if you buy Mexican drugs, you are funding the destruction of these indigenous people. Even if your Saturday night coke party is an occasional weekend extravagance, it comes with a huge human cost, not just to your body. Your purchases are part of an international supply chain, and the West’s appetite for drugs is the root of this problem. Supply and demand itself is simple in theory: no demand for Mexican drugs, no cartels. The reasons for demand are varied and complicated, and addiction is very different than recreational drug use. But America is still complicit in the Tarahumara’s suffering.
As the cartel war ricocheted from one canyon to the next, Urique became one of the last towns to be engulfed by intense violence. It had once served as an outpost for tourists exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding canyons, which helped keep it relatively tranquil until a Sinaloa boss’s nephew was murdered there, in late 2014. From then on gunfire could routinely be heard in the town and up the canyon. In the days leading up to the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco, an eight-hour battle erupted in a village along the planned racecourse. International runners arrived to find armed gangs in the streets of Urique, while local government officials assured the competitors there were no problems. A day before the race, however, Juárez hit men stormed the police station, seizing two officers and a teenager, and American organizers called off the race. Most of the visiting runners, who had come from 23 countries, made their way out under military escort. More than five hundred Tarahumara, Silvino included, resolved to carry on anyway, and the mayor agreed to a version that cut out the downriver loop, where the major shoot-out had occurred.
A few months later, Sinaloa won control of the area—nearly a dozen planes flew out of the town of Urique in one day with the remaining Juárez fighters—but conditions worsened. With the Sinaloa in command, land theft and poppy growing increased.
Some Tarahumara activists tried to make their plight known, like Irma Chávez Cruz, a 25-year-old mother who was a friend of Silvino’s. Chávez had learned Spanish as a teenager, to serve as an interpreter for her people, then earned a university degree in ecology and gotten elected to local government. She worried about Tarahumara children losing their running traditions, so she regularly put on races in the region, including all-female events called ariweta. She helped organize the largest-ever recorded rarajipari in Chihuahua—Silvino led one of the teams—and together they traveled to Brazil, in October 2015, for the inaugural World Indigenous Games. The next year, Chávez ran in the Boston Marathon (possibly the first Tarahumara woman to do so) and, while there, spoke on a panel about indigenous running traditions. Together with her father, an activist, musician, and poet known as Makawi, she pleaded for government officials in Chihuahua to help prevent drug traffickers from stealing their land and their water. But help never came, and speaking out became risky. According to the Mexico City–based magazine Proceso, at least five indigenous activists were assassinated in 2015 and 2016.