Trouble in the Land of Muy Verde
Outside magazine, March 1995
Trouble in the Land of Muy Verde
Deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, Tarahumara Indians are being murdered and their ancient forest destroyed by drug lords and loggers. A report from the Mother Range, where the pistoleros rule, the natives live in terror, and a fragile culture and the continent’s richest wilderness are hanging in the balance.
In the past year, Edwin Bustillos had survived three attempts on his life by the narcotraficantes, and there he was — or what was left of him — in the crowd that had come to Chihuahua Airport to meet my planefrom Mexico City. His most conspicuous disfigurement, as he greeted me, was his white, sightless left eye. But it had been injured when he
The way Bustillos was hunched over like an old man, however, was the result of the spinal damage and broken ribs he suffered last April 20, when a three-ton truck came up behind him on a rural road outside the town of Guachochi, one of the big trading centers in the Sierra Madre, and forced his Ford Bronco over a 300-foot embankment. Hurled from his truck, Bustillos was
His skull had nearly mended from an incident on Christmas Day in 1993, when five men — two of whom he claims he recognized as off-duty police officers — pulled him out of his car near his home in Agua Azul, beat him senseless, and left him for dead by the road. Bustillos would later become convinced that the attack had been ordered by Ismael Diaz Carillos, the municipal
And speaking of the devil, there was Carillos himself, surrounded by three gold-festooned bodyguards, standing no more than 30 feet from us. We had come in on the same plane. “That is the man who tried to kill me,” Bustillos muttered, glaring at Carillos with his one good eye.
Edwin Bustillos, founder and director of a human-rights and environmental organization called CASMAC (the Spanish name translates as Advisory Council of the Sierra Madre), had offered to lead me up into the rugged mountains of southwestern Chihuahua to gauge how profoundly the backcountry has been devastated by both the drug trade and the lumber business in recent years. All
The Sierra Madre boasts the richest biodiversity anywhere in North America and contains about two-thirds of the standing timber in Mexico. But in recent years local logging companies — some of which are believed to be in close association with, and in a few cases owned by, the narcos — have been forcing new roads into remote settlements and
Beginning some 250 miles south of the New Mexico border, this is the jagged, 500-mile range immortalized by Bogart and Huston and celebrated among wilderness lovers for Copper Canyon, a system of tangled, immense chasms, four of which are deeper than the Grand. For the last 2,000 years, it has been home to the Tarahumara, one of the continent’s largest tribes, whose simple
The deeply corrugated topography makes it necessary for the Tarahumara to regularly traverse great distances, and over the centuries they have become world-class long-distance runners. (Tarahumara is a Spanish corruption of their name for themselves: Rarámuri, or “Foot Runners.”) Their ancient tribal game, known as rajalipame, involves two
But the same labyrinthine wilderness that turned the Tarahumara into indefatigable runners has also proved to be ideal for growing illicit plants. It is nearly impossible to police, and the hot, sunny canyons can produce crops year-round. Intensive drug cultivation began in the mid-1960s, when the newly completed Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad finally opened up the Sierra and
To compound the Indians’ plight, the Mexican army has been summarily arresting the small-time (and usually reluctant) Tarahumara growers, while the kingpins behind the operations — the caciques — have seldom been caught. At the same time, U.S. environmental groups say, Mexican authorities have repeatedly sprayed the Tarahumara backcountry with
Rarely does a week pass, Bustillos claims, when CASMAC doesn’t learn about several more Tarahumara who have been killed or tortured by the narcotraficantes. The death toll in the remote community of Coloradas de la Virgen alone is up to 39 since 1991. And the few reliable statistics that CASMAC has been able to gather about the drug violence in the
According to the federal attorney general’s office in Chihuahua City, much of the carnage has been caused by the “cowboys” of Artemio Fontes, one of the eight drug lords now operating in the Sierra. The son of a large family of mestizo hillbillies with an unsavory history of gunslinging and internecine feuds, Fontes got his start in the drug trade in Coloradas 29 years ago and
The attorney general’s office had issued an arrest warrant for Fontes, but when officers showed up at his estate one morning last September, he emerged in his bathrobe and slippers and produced a letter of general amnesty, signed by a federal judge, that effectively granted him immunity from prosecution. As the federal prosecutor in Chihuahua City, Alberto Jardí,
Coloradas de la Virgen, perched on the rim of the stupendous Barranca de Sinforosa, was simply too dangerous to visit, Bustillos told me. Most of its 483 Tarahumara families had fled, and apart from the Fontes pistoleros, the place was a ghost town.
A year ago, Bustillos had had a close call in Coloradas. Driving out of town, he found the road blocked by a pickup truck. A few Fontes cowboys were leaning on the vehicle, drinking beer. “They taunted me and invited me to fight,” he said, “but I sat quietly with my gun at my side, and after 45 minutes they let me through.”
His uncle Moises Bustillos, a local CASMAC organizer, was not so lucky. Last July, five men who allegedly worked for the cartel accosted him as he was walking along the road near the town of Yoquivo. “They forced a screwdriver into his arms, legs, ankles, and groin,” Bustillos said, without emotion. “Then they buried him alive and left him for dead. It took him four days to
The drug terrorism in the Sierra Madre is now part of a broader national crisis across Mexico. Practically the whole society has been touched. All over the republic — in Oaxaca and Guerrero, Sonora and Veracruz — marijuana and, in some areas, poppies have become the principal cash crops. Many in the capital are genuinely worried that Mexico is fast becoming Colombianized.
A member of the capital elite who grew up in Colombia suggested to me that the only reason the drug violence in Mexico had not yet reached the level of that in his native land was that Mexican society was so corrupt. “As long as the judges keep taking bribes, there is no need to kill them,” he said. “The few high-minded citizens — like the police chief of Tijuana, who was
Or like Edwin Bustillos, I thought, as we stopped off at CASMAC’s offices on a quiet, upscale residential street in Chihuahua City. Here was a man who had no wife or children, no attachments — a deceptively mild-mannered agricultural engineer who, the more I came to know him, impressed me with his extraordinary courage. Part Tarahumara himself, Bustillos identified strongly
From his modest headquarters here, Bustillos and his staff of three, operating on an annual budget of $80,000, work on projects ranging from introducing environmentally sound farming techniques to saving the endangered thick-billed parrot, which inhabits old-growth forests. In recent months, CASMAC has lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Chihuahua state constitution
But mostly the CASMAC staff is involved in basic human rights work: providing safe haven for terrorized Indians, for example, or collecting affidavits to expedite the prosecution of various pistoleros of the drug lords. It is, to say the least, perilous work. Bustillos claims he receives as many as 50 anonymous calls a week, often waking him in the
For his safety, the attorney general’s office has at times provided Bustillos with bodyguards, and he now keeps a nine-millimeter pistol at his side. “Bustillos is a brave and laudable man,” federal prosecutor Alberto Jardí told me. “I have the utmost respect for his work. We could use 20 more like him.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked Bustillos a little later, as we passed through the adobe slums of Chihuahua City and headed toward the Sierra Madre in a Jeep Wagoneer with shot suspension, lurching like a motorboat in a choppy sea.
Softly, and without self-congratulation, he said, “Because I think the objective of being on this earth is to be useful.” Then Bustillos, who is no friend of the Catholic Church, pointedly added, “But I am not religious.”
Outside the city of Cuauhtemoc, we passed giant Mennonite farms — shimmering fields of grain, orderly rows of pear trees draped with black hail screens. As we rose into the Sierra, the roofs became pitched to handle snow, and gradually we entered the most bountiful woodland in North America, with 23 species of pine (more than in any other region of the world) and some 200
Winding up hairpin turns, we kept passing canvas-backed army trucks, some of which, Bustillos suspected, may have contained confiscated marijuana plants. He estimated that half of the cannabis that the army is supposed to burn on the spot ends up being sold in the United States. A high official in the capital, who had spoken to me on condition of anonymity, had explained that
We coasted into Guachochi late in the afternoon. Suddenly the road was lined with elaborate stone walls enclosing the estates of narcotraficantes, their mansions set too far back to be seen. Guachochi was a hot, dusty, ugly town of 22,000 people, plus a large population of mangy pariah dogs. The whole place was suffused with a carnival atmosphere.
One of the revelers who had just rolled into town was Petronillo Bustillos Gonzales, the governor of Aboreachic, a loose community of 400 Tarahumara families located an hour and a half’s drive from here. Gonzales, a proud man who was a celebrated local marathoner in his youth, was wearing his best cowboy hat, with a gold band, like all the other Indian men crammed into his
Right now, however, all Gonzales could think about was the Yumari fiesta. “Muchos compañeros,” he said excitedly, tipping his hat before disappearing into the crowd.
Bustillos is well known among the people of Guachochi. From here, it is only a 45-minute drive to the east to Agua Azul, the little town where Bustillos grew up as the son of a local saddle-maker and where he now keeps a small farm. There are a lot of Bustilloses in these parts. Last September, one of his relatives, a policeman by the name of Alonso Bustillos, had fired some
The Yumari celebration was taking place in an open field across the street from a school. Throngs of Tarahumara were gathered around huge, crackling bonfires. Some were brewing tesgüina, a flat, mild corn beer, in metal vats. At each bonfire, two files of men wearing helmets decked with colored streamers were shuffling to simple, two-chord
I sat on a log and took in the insistent rhythms that a dancer in shell-decorated leggings was stamping out in the dust with his tire-tread sandals. After a few hours, as I settled into the scene, I began to slip into Tarahumara time, into a cosmos in which maps and clocks are of little use, where people have multiple souls, where the physical plane is not what is really
Standing in the field, Bustillos introduced me to half a dozen refugees from Coloradas de la Virgen. It was difficult to draw them out — such was their customary shyness, not to mention their ingrained suspicion of outsiders — but as they spoke of their home, the picture that emerged was of a place truly gripped by terror. Only a handful of Tarahumara remained in Coloradas,
One of the refugees, a young man in jeans and a cowboy hat, was Jesús Martínez Chaparro, the former president of the Coloradas ejido. (The ejido, or “common land,” is a form of local self-government that was introduced after the Mexican Revolution, when large estates were awarded as communal property to
The muted revelry of the thanksgiving dances lasted through the night, and when dawn broke, the bonfires had burned down to a few charred, smoldering logs. But the men were still shuffling in their lines, the tesgüina brewers still tending their vats, the women still zoning in their shawls. A column of swirling dust — a soul in transit,
If the Tarahumara are an unusually reticent people, it is in large part the result of their traumatic contact with the outside world. First, in 1607, came the missionaries, bringing smallpox. The Tarahumara thought the deadly epidemic was spread by the ringing of church bells; one of the actual vectors may have been baptismal water. Typical of the civilizing endeavor was Father
While the padres wanted their souls, the miners, who struck silver south of the Sierra in 1631, wanted their bodies. At first the Tarahumara put up a desperate fight, but after a failed revolt in 1696, when the Spaniards posted the severed heads of 30 tribal leaders along the road to the village of Comcomorachic, their resistance became passive. They withdrew into themselves,
Then, toward the end of the nineteenth century, the loggers arrived, and they’ve never left. With gangs of conscripted Tarahumara providing the labor, by now all but 300,000 acres, or about 2 percent, of the old-growth forest has been felled, most of it without official permits or approval from the Tarahumara tribal councils.
Before founding CASMAC in 1992, Bustillos had worked for a year with a communal timber company in the Sierra town of Caborachi. His time in the forests opened his eyes to the environmental degradation and human rights abuses that had been taking place for decades. Hastily built logging roads along the steep hillsides were washing away, silting up rivers and streams. At the same
The overcutting was also diminishing the water supply. Instead of filtering down through a multistoried forest canopy and then slowly percolating into the ground, what little rainwater the arid cordillera gets was now quickly running off. As a result, underground springs that the Tarahumara had always relied on for drinking water were drying up. They were then forced to drink
In some instances, Bustillos learned, the logging companies have been directly tied to the traficantes. Impulsora Forestal de Durango, for instance — which is now cutting the largest continuous stand of primary forest remaining in the Sierra, near Coloradas — has been the subject of an ongoing government investigation into alleged links to the
As the drug trade grew increasingly profitable, marijuana and opium became like rubber in the Amazon at the turn of century, enriching local mestizo bosses and bringing a new wave of exploitation for the Tarahumara. The Indians were persuaded to grow the illicit crops, not always by force, but always with the complicity of local officials, who also issued the landing-strip
Given their history of oppression, one might suppose that the Tarahumara would be tempted to take up arms, as the Maya in Chiapas have recently done, but the prospects of a Tarahumara insurrection are, by all accounts, remote. For one thing, there are no liberal priests in the Sierra to organize them, as there are in Chiapas. The church in Chihuahua is far more conservative.
But the drug trade per se was not really a matter of concern to CASMAC, Bustillos stressed. To illustrate his point, he led me to Guachochi’s Hotel Melina, which had been built, he said, with opium money. Though the owner was a well-known drug dealer in the region, Bustillos had no quarrel with him. “He brings the Indian growers food when there’s a drought and blankets when it
I wanted Bustillos to take me to meet some of the most traditional Tarahumara, the gentiles, the ones who had rejected Christianity and maintained the old animist beliefs. They had withdrawn to the most remote parts of the Sierra, which made them easy prey for the traficantes. Ironically, the modern world that they
Bustillos decided that the best place for me to visit was a little settlement called Pino Gordo. It was a relatively safe outpost that had become something of a refuge for Tarahumara from Coloradas. Though drug-trade tensions were just beginning to develop in the area, no one had been killed that year. As its name suggested, Pino Gordo (“Fat Pine”) was rich in timber; vast
There were only two ways to get to Pino Gordo from Agua Azul: You could walk due south for 60 miles or ride 180 miles for 15 hours in a four-wheel-drive truck. The hike, which the Tarahumara can make in as little as eight hours, entailed crossing the Barranca de Sinforosa, the largest and deepest chasm in the Copper Canyon system. Since hiking in these magnificent gorges is
“What if we run into some traficantes?” I asked. “Won’t they think I’m the CIA or the DEA?”
Bustillos said that could be a problem but tried to reassure me. “Alonso will have a nine-millimeter pistol,” he said, “and he is a damn good shot.”
Late the next afternoon, we loaded Manuel’s mule, El Macho, and started down a narrow arroyo that soon widened into the Barranca de Sinforosa. According to the Tarahumara, barrancas were made by the feet of a giant crow as it paced across the land. Science regards them as the product of infinitesimally slow erosion over eons — erosion caused by arteries of the Río
I kept doing involuntary splits and dodging needle-sharp spikes of maguey, the agave from which tequila is made. Following the steep trail as it snaked below the cliffs, we could glimpse a segment of the Río Verde on the floor of the barranca 6,000 feet below, where the climate is tropical, sustaining such life forms as strangler figs, vampire bats, and the malaria
I wondered what else was out there. An extremely rare subspecies of mountain lion called the onza is still thought to roam this part of the Sierra. A remnant band of Apache may also live deep in the northern part of the range. And in 1991, when Bustillos was working briefly as a bureaucrat and sometime ethnographer for Mexico’s Institute of Indian Affairs, he trekked to a
The next morning we jigged down to the canyon floor, where there were prickly pear and pitahaya cacti the size of trees and cattle were feasting on the tasty, orange-colored vainora fruit. After bathing in the Río Verde, we started up the other side of the barranca in a hard rain. Several hours later we took shelter in a cave with a spring
Certainly the temptation would be hard to resist. To a Tarahumara grower, a kilogram of marijuana is worth between 100 and 200 kilos of corn, about $250. The return on poppies is even more impressive. Each seedpod oozes three to five grams of sticky, white opium gum. A Tarahumara can harvest about 300 grams a day, worth 100,000 pesos or so — $30 — usually paid in goods,
Of course, the motor that drives it all is the insatiable appetite for drugs in the United States. Every year, seven million pounds of marijuana, much of it cultivated in the Sierra Madre, is flown, trucked, floated, or walked into this country. And heroin, after losing ground in the eighties, is again surging in popularity. According to the Department of Health and Human
At last the rain stopped and a gigantic rainbow spanned the canyon. The Tarahumara believe that rainbows sneak up on men while they are tending their sheep and snatch their children. Each band in a rainbow is said to be a stolen child.
As plumes of fog licked their way up the arroyos and curled around spurs, we hit the trail again, entering a stand of conifers with long, droopy, light-green needles that Manuel called “sad pine.” Just as it was getting dark, we reached a hut that belonged to a Tarahumara couple, Francisco and María Ramos. They were compañeros of
As we huddled in the hut, with blackened pots and filthy clothing hanging from the ceiling, tiny María knelt in a corner and ground untoasted white corn kernels on a slab metate. She was preparing a gruel called yorike, one of some 200 forms in which the Tarahumara eat corn.
We produced a tin of sardines, an avocado, and some tortillas, and the six of us had a feast. Outside, it had begun raining torrentially. The roof leaked, and water had already spread across half of the dirt floor. All Francisco had to do was berm the open side of the shed to divert the water, but it was clear he wasn’t going to do this; our hosts were happy to let nature take
Late the next morning we arrived in Pino Gordo. There was a pastoral and wholesomely alpine atmosphere to this sparse settlement of 13 families nestled in a small valley. Pino Gordo had been completely isolated until 1990, when Impulsora Forestal put in a road without consulting the village leaders and then tried to charge the locals the equivalent of $100,000, triple the going
Lately the ejido had become divided because the traficantes had allegedly managed to corrupt one of the local Tarahumara leaders, Raul Aguirre, paying him to persuade fellow Indians in a nearby settlement to grow opium poppies in exchange for alcohol. A new airstrip had even been built to transport the harvested opium
Last May, pistoleros of a female rancher-traficante who lives close by allegedly killed five Tarahumara and rustled 70 head of cattle. Now this woman was threatening violence if the people of Pino Gordo didn’t let her build a road into their forests.
Bustillos arrived in town later in the day. Soon we were all gathered in the adobe home of Edwin’s associate and fellow CASMAC organizer Gumercindo Torres. Torres was a 31-year-old refugee from Coloradas. He was a tough hombre whose body was pocked with the scars of bullet wounds. Among other responsibilities, Torres was the de facto doctor of Pino Gordo, dispensing
As we all sat around a wood stove in their kitchen, Vrieto cooked tortillas and Torres slowly began to recount the incident that had forced him to leave Coloradas.
On December 12, 1993, Torres and his brother Luis, the local traditional governor, were dancing the Matachines in the Coloradas church. About 30 men, and more than 100 women, were packed inside. Agustín Fontes, a nephew of the drug lord Artemio Fontes, and four other cowboys were heard joking outside the church.
At about 9 P.M. Agustín and another pistolero burst into the church, while the others barred the door so no one could escape. Once inside, the two men started shooting into the air with AK-47 rifles. A few seconds later, Fontes grabbed Luis Torres by his T-shirt and whispered in his ear. Then he shot Luis eight times at point-blank range in
After treatments by Tarahumara shamans and Mexican doctors, Torres fled to the relative safety of Pino Gordo. Bustillos eventually convinced the federal police to escort him to Coloradas, where he persuaded 100 eyewitnesses to the shooting to walk 14 hours to the town of Baborigame and offer depositions which ultimately resulted in Agustín Fontes’s arrest.
Torres’s eyes burned with anger as he told his story. He would have loved to get his hands on Agustín Fontes, but Fontes was behind bars in Chihuahua City, convicted of the Coloradas church shooting and now awaiting trial for 16 other murders. “A few days before Fontes was arrested,” said Torres, “people in town told me that they heard him boasting, ‘How pretty it is
We left Pino Gordo later that day in the Suburban and bounced our way through polka-dotted mesas and golden savannas to the municipio of Balleza. Outside of town, there was a crashed DC-7, upended and lying on its nose, which Bustillos said the Fontes cartel had once used to transport cocaine up from Bolivia. The Mexican army had sabotaged the dirt landing strip here in 1991,
In Parral, an old mining town of 60,000 people, Bustillos arranged to put me on a bus to Chihuahua City. He planned to pick up an escort of five federal policemen and pay a visit to Coloradas de la Virgen. “Hey, Edwin,” I called to him as he climbed into his truck outside the Parral bus station. “Watch your back.”
He spun around and gave a grim little smile.
Before heading back to the states, I decided to stop by the penitentiary in Chihuahua City. I wanted to see Agustín Fontes.
“Who told you Agustín is here?” the penitentiary’s comandante demanded. The man’s blunt, reptilian demeanor reminded me of something a cabinet-level adviser in Mexico City had told me. “There are two things we do with the deviates in our society,” he’d said. “One, we send them to prison. Two, we put them in charge of the prisons.”
“Look,” I said. “I just want to talk to some traficantes. Get their point of view.”
The comandante said he had no problem with my talking to Agustín, as long as the conversation could be monitored and taped by prison officials, an invasion of privacy that I later learned was technically illegal but commonplace in Mexico’s prisons. He handed a recorder to his subcomandante, who escorted me to
Agustín Fontes appeared in shorts, sneakers, and a tank top, having just been pumping iron. He was a virile 23-year-old man, five-foot-ten, with black hair. “Buenas tardes,” I said, and he reciprocated with a look of mocking indifference.
“How they treating you in here?”
“This is a pretty civilized pen. You get conjugal visits?”
“Every third day.”
“TV in your own cell?”
“How long you going to have to be in here?”
“Ten years, with good behavior.”
“But didn’t you kill another inmate a few weeks ago?”
“Yes. He pulled a knife on me, so I took a board and beat him to death.” (It was actually the other way around, according to Bustillos: The other inmate had the board; Agustín had the knife and stabbed him 15 times. But Fontes successfully pleaded self-defense before the prison officials, so the incident wasn’t going to increase his time.)
“Why did he attack you?”
“It was an old family problem.”
Fontes’s veracity quotient was not real high. He denied being from Coloradas and said he’d had no involvement with trafficking drugs. “They’re bad for people,” he said. “A lot get killed.”
“Didn’t you kill 17 yourself? Didn’t you kill Luis Torres?”
“That’s what they say. But they were because of old family problems and had nothing to do with drugs.”
“Aren’t you Artemio Fontes’s nephew?”
“They say I am, but I don’t know him.”
We weren’t getting very far, probably because the subcomandante was holding the tape recorder up to Fontes’s face. “You can’t talk because of this thing, right?” I said. “If you say anything about Artemio, he will have you killed.”
“Even in here there are people who could do it.”
“True.” It was obvious to me now that the corrections system, too, was enmeshed with the cartel, another corrupted cog in the machine. How else was Artemio Fontes going to know what Agustín said unless the comandante gave him the tape?
As we left the visitor’s room, the subcomandante asked me what interest I had in Agustín Fontes. I told him I was writing an article about the growing troubles in the mountains. As he fished the tape out of the recorder and slipped it discreetly into his pocket, he nodded vigorously. “Ah, sí. Es muy verde, la
Alex Shoumatoff is the author of The World Is Burning, Murder in the Rainforest, In Southern Light: The Rivers Amazon, and several other books.