Tourists are drawn to the area’s imposing mountains, deep canyons and the indomitable Tarahumara Indigenous people, who refer to themselves as the Raramuri and are famed for their ability to run dozens of miles barefoot or in leather sandals. The mostly roadless region contains wonders like the Copper Canyon, often called Mexico’s Grand Canyon, and one of the country’s last working passenger trains.
But the mountains are a land of tragedy as well as beauty. The Raramuri are still largely impoverished after centuries in which their ancestral land was taken from them. They have suffered famine and starvation 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 illicit crops of marijuana and opium poppies. In the 2000s, the cartels expanded into illegal logging on Raramuri lands, driving out or killing anyone who opposed them. The Ciudad Juarez-based La Linea gang is battling the Sinaloa cartel, whose local branch is known as Los Salazar.
Isela Gonzalez, director of the Sierra Madre Alliance environmental group, said the gangs now compete to control local alcohol sales, extortion and kidnapping. “The Sierra Tarahumara is under a constant climate of violence,” Gonzalez said. She just returned from a Raramuri community, Coloradas de la Virgen, and noted, “There is a very violent atmosphere, a lot of shootouts between groups, and that is forcing a lot of people to flee.”
WHO ELSE HAS BEEN KILLED?
At least a half dozen Raramuri environmental activists 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 slain in 2017. The few suspects detained in those killings were likely only triggermen, and their possible links to drug gangs were apparently never fully investigated.
Journalist Miroslava Breach was killed by gunmen linked to the Los Salazar gang in 2017, apparently in retaliation for reporting on drug gangs’ ties to politicians.
Perhaps the case that drew the most attention was that of 34-year-old American hiker Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who was killed in 2018 in Urique, near where the Jesuits were murdered. Officials at the time identified the killer as José Noriel Portillo Gil, alias El “Chueco,”or “The Crooked One.” An alleged local boss for the Los Salazar gang, he is the same man wanted for killing the two priests.
WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT DONE?
The fact that Portillo Gil could be accused of killing a U.S. tourist and not be caught —and then be accused of slaying the two much-loved priests — left many people stunned.
“I just never understood how is it that the United States didn’t raise holy hell until they captured him” said Randall Gingrich, an environmental and educational 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 Chihuahua state governor at the time, Javier Corral, pledged to “mete out an exemplary punishment to this criminal and his gang who, paradoxically, by acting in this cowardly way, have put an end to the Sinaloa cartel’s influence and control of this area. Nothing will stop us from capturing him.”
None of that happened. Portillo Gil continued to operate so freely that — according to state prosecutors — when the local baseball team he sponsored lost a game recently, “El Chueco” went to the home of two players on the opposing team, shot one, kidnapped the other and set their house on fire the same day the priests were killed.
“This illustrates a systematic impunity,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.
WHO ELSE HAS BEEN THREATENED?
Most who work in the Sierra Tarahumara report intimidation, threats and drug-cartel checkpoints even on main roads in the mountains. That atmosphere led in 2015 to the cancelation of the 50-mile-plus Copper Canyon ultramarathon after violence near the course.
The annual race was founded by ultramarathon competitor Micah True, who lived among the Raramuri, was inspired by their running prowess and wanted to benefit them while highlighting their culture. It was held successfully in March this year.
“Most people had a really good experience,” said Gingrich.. “But well, there were people on the streets that were, you know, pretty questionable. I mean, there was definitely a heavy narco presence… The community benefits from (the race) but there’s potential there that something could go wrong.”
WHY WERE THE PRIESTS THERE?
The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are known, has a long history of defending Indigenous peoples, and longstanding ties to the Sierra Tarahumara. The Jesuits started missions among the Raramuri in the 1600s but were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, in part because colonists complained the missions were depriving them of Indigenous labor. They returned around 1900. The Jesuits carry out educational, health and economic projects and have a seminary there. The two murdered priests were well-regarded among the Raramuri, learning their language and customs.
WILL THIS REFLECT ON PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR?
López Obrador has declared his government is no longer focused on detaining drug cartel leaders, and has often appeared to tolerate the gangs, even praising them at one point for not interfering in elections. The killings and other outbursts of violence come at an uncomfortable time for López Obrador.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, said last year that “transnational criminal organizations … are operating oftentimes 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 saying that López Obrador “has advocated policies that focus on the root causes of crime, but his government has not carried out counternarcotics operations consistently… More than halfway through López Obrador’s six-year term, he arguably has achieved few of his anticorruption and criminal justice aims.”