Tourists are drawn to the imposing mountains, deep gorges and the indomitable Tarahumara indigenous people, who call themselves the Raramuri and are famous for their ability to run for tens of miles barefoot or in leather sandals. The largely roadless region contains wonders such as the Copper Canyon, often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Mexico, and one of the country’s last working passenger trains.
But the mountains are both a land of tragedy and beauty. The Raramuri are still largely impoverished after centuries of taking their ancestral lands from them. They have suffered famine and famine during the worst years, even in this century.
WHY IS THE SIERRA TARAHUMARA SO DANGEROUS?
Drug cartels have long used the remote mountains to plant illegal crops of marijuana and poppies. In the 2000s, the cartels expanded into illegal logging on Raramuri lands, expelling or killing anyone who opposed them. The Ciudad Juarez-based La Linea gang is fighting the Sinaloa cartel, whose local branch is known as Los Salazar.
Isela Gonzalez, director of the environmental group Sierra Madre Alliance, said the gangs are now battling to control local alcohol sales, extortion and kidnapping. “The Sierra Tarahumara is under a constant climate of violence,” Gonzalez said. She has just returned from a Raramuri community, Coloradas de la Virgen, and noted: “There is a very violent atmosphere, a lot of gunfights between groups, and that forces a lot of people to flee.”
WHO MORE KILLED?
At least half a dozen Raramuri environmentalists have been killed in the Sierra Tarahumara in recent years, including anti-logging activist Isidro Baldenegro, who received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and was killed in 2017. The few suspects detained in those murders were likely mere triggermen, and their possible links to drug gangs were apparently never fully investigated.
Journalist Miroslava Breach was murdered in 2017 by gunmen associated with the Los Salazar gang, apparently in retaliation for reporting drug gangs’ ties to politicians.
Perhaps the case that attracted the most attention was that of 34-year-old American hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who was murdered in 2018 in Urique, near the site where the Jesuits were murdered. Officials at the time identified the killer as José Noriel Portillo Gil, aka El “Chueco” or “The Crooked One.” An alleged local boss of the Los Salazar gang, he is the same man wanted for murdering the two priests.
WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT DONE?
The fact that Portillo Gil could be accused of murdering an American tourist and not be caught – and subsequently charged with killing the two beloved priests – left many people amazed.
“I just never understood how the United States didn’t resurrect holy hell until they captured it,” said Randall Gingrich, an environmental and education activist who has worked in the Sierra for three decades. “Why wasn’t there a massive manhunt until this was resolved? How could he still be there?”
The then governor of the state of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, promised to “distribute exemplary punishment to this criminal and his gang who, paradoxically, by acting in this cowardly manner, have ended the influence and control of the Sinaloa cartel over this area. Nothing will stop us from catching him.”
None of that happened. Portillo Gil continued to operate so freely that — according to prosecutors — when the local baseball team he sponsored recently lost a game, “El Chueco” went to the house of two players from the opposing team, shot one, kidnapped the other. and their house burned the same day the priests were killed.
“This illustrates systematic impunity,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.
WHO IS MORE THREATENED?
Most who work in the Sierra Tarahumara report harassment, threats and checkpoints from drug cartels, even on major mountain roads. That atmosphere led to the cancellation of the 80-kilometer Copper Canyon ultra marathon in 2015 after violence near the track.
Founded by ultramarathon competitor Micah True, who lived among the Raramuri, the annual race was inspired by their running prowess and wanted to benefit them while promoting their culture. It was successfully held in March this year.
“Most people had a really good experience,” Gingrich said. “But hey, there were people on the street who were, you know, pretty dubious. I mean there was definitely a heavy narco presence… The community is benefiting from (the race) but there’s a possibility that something could go wrong to go. “
WHY WERE THE PRIESTS THERE?
The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are called, has a long history of defending indigenous peoples and longstanding ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. The Jesuits began missions under the Raramuri in the 17th century, but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, in part because settlers complained that the missions robbed them of native labor. They returned around 1900. The Jesuits carry out education, health and economic projects there and have a seminary there. The two murdered priests were well regarded among the Raramuri and learned their language and customs.
WILL THIS REFLECT ON PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR?
López Obrador has stated that his government is no longer focused on detaining drug cartel leaders, and often appears to tolerate the gangs, even praising them at one point for not interfering in elections. The murders and other outbursts of violence come at an inconvenient time for López Obrador.
Gene. Glen VanHerck, head of US Northern Command, said last year that “transnational criminal organizations … often operate in ungoverned areas, 30 to 35% of Mexico.” Hope calls that number “made up” but says the government faces “a real problem of territorial control.”
In June, the U.S. Congressional Research Office released a report stating that López Obrador “has advocated policies that target the root causes of crime, but his administration has failed to consistently conduct counter-narcotics operations… More than halfway through López Obrador’s six-year term.” he arguably achieves few of his anti-corruption and criminal justice goals.”