GUACHOCHI, Mexico (AP) – It’s been months since Maria Luisa Gonzalez and her husband have been able to harvest anything from their drought-parched land or catch fish in a lake that’s become little more than a muddy puddle.
Like other Tarahumara Indians suffering from severe drought in Mexico’s vast northern canyons, Gonzalez said she had yet to receive any aid last week, nearly two months after President Felipe Calderon said that he had assessed the drought’s damage and his government was tending to the crisis.
The federal Interior Department declared a state of emergency in 37 Sierra Madre municipalities in the Tarahumara region on Jan. 3.
The first major batch of federal help showed up Thursday with great media fanfare, including Calderon and First Lady Margarita Zavala loading a navy plane with boxes of groceries on a rural landing strip in Chihuahua state, where the Tarahumara live in the crannies of a natural wonder that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.
“I want to emphasize the Sierra Tarahumara is a top priority in my administration,” Calderon said in a press conference, adding that the navy was delivering 119 tons of food.
Gonzalez, however, said such promises have been empty since their October crops yielded no corn potatoes or beans.
“We hadn’t received anything,” the 67-year-old said. “If this continues, we will starve to death because what are we going to eat? It’s dry. The lake is dry.”
Calderon first said Dec. 1 that his government was on top of the crisis, caused by the worst drought to hit northern Mexico in 70 years. A trip to the region late last by The Associated Press showed families picking up private donations but nothing from the government. Even Chihuahua officials say the response has been slow.
“They took a long time,” said Jesus Velasquez, coordinator of a program delivering state resources to the Tarahumara. He also coordinates the food relief efforts with the navy and private groups. “There wasn’t a federal program until now, until the president came. We still need to know how much,” he said,
The federal government issued a statement Saturday responding to AP questions showing Calderon delivering food and blankets on Nov. 30. “The support has intensified since January, incorporating the army and the navy,” the statement said.
The federal Social Development Department began distributing boxes with 10 kilos of food each in 107 shelters in the region on Jan. 24. Deputy Secretary Luis Mejia told the AP that sending food took time because officials could only plan logistics after the state of emergency was declared.
Meanwhile, the plight of the Tarahumara has become an easy photo op, as well as a convenient button to push in an election year for Mexicans, who draw pride from their indigenous groups as well as embarrassment when reminded how poorly they live.
Enrique Pena Nieto, the opposition front-runner in this year’s presidential race, went to the region two days later to declare the government was doing nothing to help.
Everyone from Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard to political parties, running groups and everyday people have organized relief efforts for the Tarahumara. Also known as Raramuris, they have long been a symbol of strength and self-reliance for Mexicans and inspired ultra-marathoners worldwide because they run up to 60 miles at a time tirelessly through the mountains in little more than sandals.
Residents of the town of Laguna de Aboreachi said they saw the first aid shipment come last week not from the government but from a Mexico City-based nonprofit rescue team known as the Topos, Spanish for moles. The group sent a truck loaded with 14 tons of food, water, blankets and used clothes.
The town is only an hour away from Guachochi, the state distribution center for aid to 250,000 Tarahumara in the Sierra Madre mountains. Before the federal push last week, the AP saw no signs of a major relief effort under way. State officials say they’ve been distributing help since November and still have only reached half of the 70,000 needy families. The 110 pounds of corn, 44 tons of beans and four tons of pork given to each family only last about a month, and his aid workers are supposed to make another round of deliveries when the food runs out.
Even with the arrival of trucks and planes of supplies, it’s still difficult to reach people who live in the canyons, which are only accessible by foot or horse.
“There are thousands of communities,” Velasquez said. “We can’t reach all of them.”
The Tarahumara face shortages in food every winter because of the cold, harsh terrain they inhabit, and many migrate to the cities for the winter where they live on the streets. Malnutrition among the population is high, and the Health Department said in a 2009 document that the infant mortality rate among the Tarahumara was 95 out of 1000, more than five times Mexico’s average rate, mostly because of malnutrition.
In the last year, their living conditions have grown much worse with the extreme drought.
The outpouring of aid began when the council secretary in the Chihuahua town of Carichi told a local television channel Jan. 15 that some Tarahumara were jumping off cliffs because they were desperate that they couldn’t feed their families.
The aid didn’t stop even after the state government of Chihuahua, the Mexican Red Cross and other officials said the reports were false.
Tomas Ruiz, representative of the board of governors in Tarahumara regions, said the aid is only arriving to the larger and more accessible villages of the Sierra Madre so officials can publicize the good deeds.
“We need the food, but it is not the solution to what we want,” Ruiz said. “What we want is a policy that really helps us come out of poverty, marginalization, isolation.”
Guadalupe Bustillos, 45, said some days the only nourishment for her and her husband has been a glass of corn mush called “pinole.” When she saw an aid truck pull over last week, she was able to get a garage bag full of water, rice, tuna and used clothes from Topos.
Besides the state efforts, the Red Cross boosted food aid to that region from the five tons they normally deliver during the winter to 300 tons of canned food arriving in train cars in the past weeks.
Velasquez has received the food aid in the town of Guachochi, called the center of the Sierra Tarahumara, where state aid trucks sporadically arrive after hours of navigating narrow tracks of curvy mountain roads.
On a recent day, dozens of indigenous mulled around the patio of a house in Laguna de Aboreachi where the trailer parked with the food. Mothers breast-fed babies fastened to their bodies with hand-woven shawls while waiting in line to get packages of food and water bottles.
The lake of Aboreachi, where some residents used to fish for trout, is now a muddy pit. The lumber yard that used to employ indigenous residents has closed.
Macario Gomez, transportation director of the regional Mexican Red Cross, said he has seen a mobilization on behalf of the state of Chihuahua like no other year with more than 1,000 metric tons of food delivered.
“The Sierra is the Achilles’ heel of the state government,” Gomez said.
Even with the aid, Gomez said, he is seeing increasingly more Indians walking five to six hours only to get some grain and water. He said some have to leave with their hands empty.
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