Tarahumara Indians Increasingly Used as Drug Runners

Jun 27, 2012
Outside Magazine

Tarahumara Indians, the tribe made famous in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, are being used more and more by traffickers to ferry drugs across the U.S. border with Mexico. Aram Roston has written a detailed feature for Newsweek on the practice, titled "Mexican Drug War's Next Victims: Tarahumara Indian Runners."

“You get a guy who can go 50 miles with almost no water ... they’ve been indirectly training for [cross-border smuggling] for 10,000 years,” says Christopher McDougall in the article. “It’s just tragic and disgraceful. This is a culture that has tried its best to stay out of this mess, all of these messes—the messes of the world—and now the messes have come and found them.”

Below is an excerpt from the story detailing the increase seen by U.S. defense lawyers.

According to defense lawyers, law-enforcement sources, and some Tarahumara Indians, drug traffickers are now exploiting the very Tarahumara trait—endurance—that has been crucial to their survival. Cartel operatives enlist impoverished Tarahumara Indians to make a grueling odyssey running drugs by foot across the border to the U.S.

American defense lawyers on the southwest border say Tarahumara drug runners are a growing segment of their court-assigned clientele. Ken Del Valle, a defense attorney in El Paso, Texas, says he’s represented more than a dozen of the Indians since 2007, all in similar “backpacking” cases. Statistics are impossible to come by since law enforcement agencies don’t differentiate between Indians and other Mexicans, but Del Valle says it is precisely the Tarahumaras’ aptitude for endurance running that makes them so heavily recruited: the cartels “can put them in the desert and just say, ‘Go!’”

Del Valle says when the cases first starting appearing, U.S. courts were ill-equipped to handle the defendants. In one early case, he recalls, a Taruhamara was released when the court couldn’t find an interpreter. Now, lawyers and judges have a translator on call.

Don Morrison, an assistant federal public defender, first represented a Tarahumara in 2010. “I had no idea that right across the border there was a tribe of people who lived like this,” he told me. Many Tarahumara men still wear handmade sandals, skirt-like loin cloths, and brightly colored tunics. “If the drug war can start involving the Tarahumara,” he says, “then no one is immune.”

Read more at Newsweek.

There is also a gallery of the Tarahumara by photographer Jason Florio.

H/T: Christopher McDougall

—Joe Spring

Filed To: Adventure, Politics, Running

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