Mexican Drug War's Next Victims: Tarahumara Indian Runners

Tarahumara indians
The Tarahumara’s native Copper Canyons have been invaded by narcotraficantes. Jason Florio for Newsweek

Camilo Villegas-Cruz is wistful when he talks about happier times, running in the shadowy depths of Sinforosa Canyon, in Mexico's lawless Sierra Madre. A member of the Tarahumara Indian tribe, renowned for their agility and running endurance, Villegas-Cruz grew up competing in traditional rarajipari races, in which contestants kick a wooden ball along a rocky trail. But by the time he was 18 years old, he was running an entirely different kind of race—hauling a 50-pound backpack of marijuana across the border into the New Mexico desert.

Today, Villegas-Cruz is 21 and languishing in a U.S. federal prison near the Mojave Desert in Adelanto, Calif.

Villegas-Cruz's unlikely journey from young athlete to drug mule shows how a little-known tribe, having been catapulted into the limelight by a runaway bestseller, is being ground down by forces out of its control, including Mexico's all-consuming drug war, a disastrous economy, and an unrelenting drought.

In their native language, Villegas-Cruz's people call themselves the Rarámuri—the light-footed ones. Their unique physical abilities were largely unknown to the outside world until 2009, when the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen made them famous. "When it comes to ultradistances," author Christopher McDougall wrote, "nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner—not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner." Among the characters in the book was a Tarahumara champion who once ran 435 miles, and another who won a 100-mile ultramarathon in Leadville, Colo., with almost casual ease. McDougall described the reclusive Tarahumara as "the kindest, happiest people on the planet," and "benign as Bodhisattvas."

The central message—that nature intended human beings to run—struck a chord in the United States, where Born to Run had a staggering impact on the amateur-running world (and on the $2.3 billion per year running-shoe business). The book triggered the barefoot running rage, including popular "foot gloves" that are as close as you can get to not wearing shoes at all.

But there's a painful twist to this otherwise uplifting tale. 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."

Until recently, the Tarahumara have been partially protected by the fearsome geography of the region they inhabit— the Sierra Madre mountains. The terrain here is psychedelic: plinths and boulders and impossible overhangs. The canyons stretch down more than a mile, though the Tarahumara navigate the cliffs as easily as staircases. But in the past decades, ranchers, miners, loggers, and narcos have moved ever closer into traditional Tarahumara enclaves. One of the last travel books to chronicle the region was the acclaimed God's Middle Finger, published in 2008 by British writer Richard Grant. It describes a run-in with armed thugs, then closes with this thought: "I never wanted to set foot in the Sierra Madre again."

Exacerbating the situation is what -locals say is the worst drought in 70 years. Even in the best of times, many Tarahumara live on the edge, tilling just enough to survive. Now farmers can't get most food crops to grow, and last winter an unusual cold spell killed off much of what they did plant. That's left the Indians desperate—and easy prey for wealthy drug barons looking for mules to take their product north.

"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 McDougall, author of Born to Run. "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."

"I can't even weigh the cultural impact of what the drug industry is doing to the Tarahumara," says Randy Gingrich, an American based in the city of Chihuahua for 20 years. He spends much of his time in the Sierra Madre and his NGO, Tierra Nativa, battles threats to the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes from miners, loggers, drug dealers, and the occasional tourist scheme. He says one former drug baron once forcibly evicted Tarahumara from their ancestral homes so he could build a giant Astroturf ski slope overlooking the 6,000-foot Sinforosa Canyon. The project fell through when the trafficker died in a plane crash.

In the town of Guachochi, a Tarahumara woman named Ana Cela Palma says she knows four Indians who have become "burros" and made the trek up to the U.S. for the cartels. None was paid what they were promised, she says. "They make it back, but in really bad condition," she says. They were broken down physically, impoverished, and angry, she says.

Tarahumara indians
The Tarahumara are legendary for their endurance—and their reclusiveness. Jason Florio for Newsweek

Palma took me from a little settlement called Norigachi, along a ridge road cut by loggers, and into a small and tranquil valley. On the east side of the valley, past a shallow rise, we found a Tarahumara shaman, known as an owiruame, sitting on a pile of rocks. Jose Manuel Palma is 82 years old and a distant relative of Ana -Cela's. The old man's face lit up when I asked about running. He used to be a long-distance runner, he said, and was proud of it, though there aren't a lot of races in the community anymore. His job now is healing the sick, mostly through dreams. The Tarahumara believe that people possess several souls, and that illness is the result of souls losing their balance. "This is the highest level of shamanism in the Sierra," explains Gingrich. "They are called sonaderos—people who dream for others."

Palma said "the traffickers have not approached the traditional leaders of the Tarahumara," recruiting instead the younger people, who then recruit their friends. That's how his nephew, Alfredo Palma, got involved. He was approached by a Tarahumara friend, who apparently was planning to carry a load for the traffickers and wanted company.

Court records in the U.S. show that Alfredo Palma, 29 years old, was offered up to $800 to make the dangerous trek across the border—more than a typical Tarahumara Indian might see in a year. As Palma and seven other backpackers trekked through the cold desert night, over the border into New Mexico, an infrared radar picked them up. Four men slipped away, but the border patrol found Alfredo and two others trying to hide behind some shrubs. Nearby, in their backpacks, was 260 pounds of Mexican pot.

Thirty yards away from where Jose Palma sat, a man used a horse to pull a plow through some dry fields, and the old Tarahumara said that the man was one of his sons. The old man said they were praying for rain, but in the meantime, his other son had moved to Chihuahua City to look for work.

It was the drought that also drove Camilo Villegas-Cruz to look for work elsewhere. His father couldn't manage to grow enough beans, peas, and corn to survive on their little rancheria. So when Villegas-Cruz and one of his brothers were approached in early January 2009 by a stranger offering to pay them each $1,500 to be burros, they quickly accepted.

Late one evening, they shouldered their 50-pound backbacks and set out from a small farmhouse near the border. It was just a half-hour walk to a remote unguarded section of the barren border-crossing into the U.S. They carried smaller packs on their chests with food and water. Marching all night in the desert, they would stop when the sun rose every day, and would stash the huge marijuana packs and sleep. It was a tedious and grueling trek, and on the third day they woke up to the sound of a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter overhead.

They were arrested and charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute, and could have faced 20-year sentences. The American judge in Los Cruces, New Mexico, let them off easy, sending them back to Mexico, each with a sentence of three years of unsupervised release.

When Villegas-Cruz returned home, his parents were furious, he says. His mother sobbed. But soon enough, life went back to normal. He met a Tarahumara girl and fell in love. He went to traditional corn-beer festivals. He volunteered during a 50-mile Tarahuma race, holding a torch through the night to light the way for runners kicking a ball before them in the old way of the tribe. (The race had been organized by a legendary ultramarathoner, Micah True. True, an American nicknamed "Caballo Blanco," spent years working on behalf of the Tarahumara, and was a central character in Born to Run. He died in March of heart disease, while running.)

But Villegas-Cruz's family was still struggling. So once again, he set off to find work. First, he planted chilis for a farmer, earning $10 a day for backbreaking work in the searing summer heat. Then a more lucrative offer came. "I've got a job for you," said a man nicknamed Cholo, recalls Villegas-Cruz. "It's only going to be three days."

Tarahumara indians
With the region suffering a terrible drought, families are struggling. Jason Florio for Newsweek

He knew the risks but he says the money was too good to turn down. He says the traffickers took him to a store in town and bought him clothes, new shoes, and a coat to keep him warm while trekking during cold desert nights. There was a catch, however: the cost for the clothes, the cartel operatives told him, would come out of his $1,500 in pay. At least until he completed his mission, Villegas-Cruz was in debt to the smugglers, and couldn't back out.

He was driven in the bed of a pickup truck to a little ranch near the U.S. border, where the backpacks were already prepared—heavy burlap sacks taped tight, full of compressed packages of marijuana. Villegas-Cruz shouldered the heavy load, and with a handful of other men, walked at night in his new shoes, behind the guide. They crossed the border within a half hour, and soon were walking through a desert in New Mexico. In unfamiliar territory, Villegas-Cruz got nervous and wanted to turn back. "I was really sad, and really scared," he says. But without a guide, he knew he'd never find his way back to the Sinforosa Canyon.

Three days in, it began to rain, and as he trudged with his huge backpack full of marijuana, he slipped and fell. Covered in mud, he kept on walking. By now he was completely terrified, he says. On the morning of the fourth day, the Border Patrol found him and two others. The guide, who didn't carry the same load as the "mules" he was leading, managed to slip away.

Villegas-Cruz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and reentering the country illegally, and this time he was sentenced to 46 months. "Someday," he says, dressed in a prison uniform and sitting in a large room usually used for court proceedings, "I'll get home and I'll never come here again."