CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — For Benito, a 28-year-old Raramuri, it was almost fated. A couple of weeks before he started training to win the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a friend proposed an easier goal: to run only 20 miles carrying a “mochila,” a backpack full of weed or poppy—for 35,000 pesos (US $2,000).
The marathon prize money was set at 200,000 pesos (roughly $10,000), more than enough to ease the hunger his family had been through since the beginning of one of the hardest droughts to ever hit the region in Northern Mexico. But the chances of winning were likely less than the chances of delivering a backpack in a 20-mile stretch.
In the end, the drug run was much longer. At the last minute, a cartel member changed the route. Instead of going just across the border from Guadalupe in the Mexican state of Chihuahua to Tornillo in Texas, the couriers had to start from Ojinaga, a small border city just across the border from Presidio, Texas, a total distance of around 135 miles.
After three days in the Chihuahuan Desert, Benito, his friend Artemio, and Artemio’s nephew, Heraclio—each of them Raramuri and each carrying a drug load—were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents on the night of May 6 near Highway 90 south of Van Horn, Texas, 80 miles from their destination. In total they were carrying 174 pounds of weed divided into three plastic rectangle-shaped backpacks, according to the affidavit obtained by VICE World News.
In the past two years, the number of Rarámuri arrested on U.S. soil has doubled from 100 to around 200 people, according to public defenders in Texas and New Mexico.
For the Raramuri, a legendary Indigenous tribe living in the remote Sierra Madre mountains of Northern Mexico, running is in their blood. They used to run behind their prey for days until the animal had to rest, and then they attacked. Most recently they’ve been winning marathons all over the globe. Raramuri means “light feet.”
But climate change, and the extreme drought happening from it, is making the Raramuri desperate, and many are deciding to sell their ancestral running gift to the cartels operating in the Sierra Madre mountains.
Randall Gingrich, an activist for Raramuri Human Rights and founder of Tierra Nativa, a nonprofit public charity, said although the issue has been going on for some years, the extreme weather this summer has pushed more Indigenous to work as runners for the cartels.
“They are really struggling this time. The drought this year has hit them really badly and the narcos around the area know how desperate and hungry they are,” Gingrich told VICE World News.
Mexico is undergoing a severe drought in some 85 percent of its territory, but it has been even more devastating for the northern state of Chihuahua, sitting on one of the largest deserts in America, where almost 100 percent of the crops are destroyed, according to the state’s ministry of agriculture.
This has left thousands of Raramuri—out of their total population of about 100,000—vulnerable to drug cartels.
Gingrich, who has lived for more than 20 years in the Raramuri region, said the Sinaloa Cartel maintains a prominent presence in the Sierra Madre, targeting Raramuri to use their land to grow cannabis and poppy, and forcing them to grow and smuggle drugs into the US.
The Sierra Madre has been a common hideaway for cartels not only because of its hard access, but also because they can exploit the land -through illegal logging and harvesting drugs- and the Indeigenous living there.
“It’s really sad what the narcos are doing to the Raramuri. They are completely enslaved. Narcos are lying to them saying they will get paid and at the end they threaten them with killing them if they ask for their money,” he said.
Aaron Eckman, a criminal defense lawyer based in Alpine, Texas, and Benito’s defender, said starting this year he has been busier with this type of cases than ever before.
“I alone have already represented more than 10 this year. I can say it is not a new trend but we are definitely seeing a spike,” said Eckman.
According to Eckman, cartels are not necessarily forcing them, but enticing them by offering “good money” to run drugs across.
“The narcos are just plain taking advantage of these people. I can only speak for what the people I represent have told me, and all of them are being offered between $1,000 and $2,000 U.S. dollars only if they make it, which might be nothing, but for them (the Raramuri) it is a tremendous amount of money,” he said.
A public defender in Alpine, Texas, who asked his name not to be published because of the sensitivity of the issue said:
“This is a growing trend. I have been active as a public defender since 2010, and during all of those 10 years I have probably watched around 100 [cases involving Raramuri] in total. But since the last months of 2020 up until now, I have received more than 50 myself, and talking with other attorneys, we counted more than 200 cases,” he said.
Traffickers are learning how to game the system: In order to receive lighter sentences, the total amount of load they carry on their backs never surpass 100 kilos, according to the attorney.
Dale Taylor is the only trained interpreter for Raramuri to English in the U.S. He has been serving U.S. courts as a Spanish interpreter for nearly 20 years, but most recently his knowledge of the Raramuri language has been helping hundreds of Indigenous people understand what’s going on during their trials.
This year alone he has served in more than 40 cases.
“Some years ago when they [U.S. authorities] found Raramuri with drugs at the border, they didn’t know what to make of them, so they would just let them go with a warning. B ut because of the amount of them recently found at border states, they are taking them into trial, sometimes without them even knowing what is going on,” Taylor told VICE World News.
Taylor, 60, learned the language after living in the Raramuri village of Caborachi in the 1980s while volunteering as a missionary.
Champion Raramuri marathoner Silvino Cubesare knows exactly how cartels operate in the Sierra Madre. He did four drug runs in five years.
His first time was in 2005, when he had to carry a drug load from the desert around Ciudad Juarez across to El Paso, Texas, a short five-mile stretch. The second time, the cartel asked him to travel more than 50 miles to Las Cruces in New Mexico, to drop off the load. The third time, in 2007, he was arrested near Las Cruces and sentenced to eight months.
His last time was in 2010. Even after winning several marathons, hunger hit his hometown, and he wasn’t making enough to feed his wife and his four children. This time he couldn’t deliver the load, but he managed to escape from the Border Patrol somewhere around New Mexico.
“The people here are hungry. There are not enough resources to earn a living and people feel the need to find a job, any job,” he said.
Silvino, along with Mickey Mahaffey, an American runner and author who lived with the Raramuri for more than 20 years, and Will Harlan, an ultrarunner from North Carolina, founded a project to cultivate eight acres of chia for a Virginia-based company and build a food bank for the Raramuri in the area.
“Our goal is to take back their land from the narcos and to put them on track to be self-sustainable and stay on their land,” Harlan told VICE World News.
The project is now fully managed by Silvino and his sister Carmen Cubesare.
Most recently, Mahaffey recalls, a group of local narcos working for the Sinaloa Cartel asked a woman farmer to abandon her land because the cartel needed the space to grow poppy.
“It turned out that that field was part of our project, where we were growing chia,” said Mahaffey.
Mahaffey and the rest of the group advised the woman not to leave—they weren’t looking for trouble, but they also didn’t want the Raramuri family to be left without their means. In the end, Mahaffey learned, the narcos started asking what the family was cultivating on their land. And when they found out it was part of a project to support the Raramuri, they left.
“Now that I think about it, it is a victory for the Raramuri,” Mahaffey said. “They are not fighters, they don’t fight back, but this time they stayed, and it could be the start of a project that takes them out of having to work in the drug business.”