Fátima del Rocio Valdivia Ramírez
“It’s my job to make sure that everything is as it should be, that there are no abuses. I’m not on anyone’s side. I’m on the side of the truth, and I do what I can to find it.” That was Blanco’s answer when I asked him about his role in La Llegada, a small Rarámuri community in the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua. Blanco is a key lieutenant for the local jefe de plaza, the leader of the Cartel de Sinaloa-affiliated group that arrived in the community in 2011.
In the indigenous communities of the Sierra Tarahumara, the involvement of members of armed drug trafficking groups in matters of order and justice is an increasingly common phenomenon. Once these groups arrive, they establish territories, hierarchies, and rules. Beyond the activities of the armed group’s members, who engage in poppy cultivation and opium gum trafficking, these de facto power structures also come to function as a sort of community governance. Group leaders establish general rules of behavior and serve to resolve a range of disputes, including criminal, domestic, and agrarian affairs.
In the case of La Llegada, for example, the armed group began regulating the sale of alcohol—both legal and clandestine—and by dismantling the bands of youth known as “los cholos” who were blamed for petty theft and unruliness. This earned the group the appreciation of many in the community, including indigenous authorities who felt overwhelmed by the problems. “Since those people [the armed group] came, everything feels much calmer in the community. They solved the problems with the cholos and with alcohol. But now everyone is afraid of them, including the authorities,” a former Rarámuri leader told me. The verdicts can be rough, and sometimes have a price: group members are sometimes hired to threaten or harm people involved in land disputes. Currently the group metes out physical and financial punishments to those caught committing a crime or participating in a fight. They also are involved in directly mediating land disputes and others such as domestic violence or parental custody cases.
The day I spoke with Blanco, for example, we met in the offices of the municipality. When Blanco arrived, the sectional delegate (representante seccional, a municipal official) pointed out a couple standing outside the offices. “They’re waiting for you; go and tell them that the issue is settled.” Blanco smiled and responded, “I might just kick his ass.” The sectional delegate told me that the couple had a small child and from a very young age had left the child with their maternal grandparents because the father was a drug addict and regularly beat the mother. Lately, the couple had been more stable, and wanted the child back, but the grandparents refused and the couple sought the sectional delegate’s help. He told them that the grandparents had the right to retain the child, but the couple did not relent. It is worth noting that the sectional delegate does not have jurisdiction to decide custody cases, but as I will explain below, these types of authorities often operate outside their legal powers.
When the parents disputed the sectional delegate’s decision, the grandparents sought the support of the jefe de plaza. They found him on one of the community’s roads and explained the situation. He told them that they indeed had the right to retain the child and sent them to the offices of the municipality so the delegate could give them the appropriate documentation. That is why the couple was outside the office, waiting to receive the paperwork that confirmed the resolution decreed by the jefe de plaza, a decision that, at the time, seemed to be more effective and definitive, one that few would dare disobey, including the unhappy parents.
It was this sort of matter that Blanco was referring to when he told me that his job was keeping order and searching for truth at any cost. A task that, despite the frustration of many, bolstered the armed group’s legitimacy and power in the community while simultaneously undercutting the authority of the state and sidelining the jurisdiction of the Rarámuri.
This situation, which is replicated in many other parts of the Tarahumara (and indeed Mexico), has provoked numerous debates about why drug trafficking groups are allowed to continue these practices of social and political control. In the region, these discussions frequently occur among members of organized civil society, church members, and other residents—mostly women. The men, on the other hand, often tend to say that there’s nothing to worry about. Yet those who do worry are concerned about the links that armed groups establish with the preexisting local authorities—the state, the ejidal commissioners, the church, and the indigenous authorities—and the way those linkages affect the possibilities for accessing justice and ensuring peace. For many, the best explanation for this phenomenon is that of a coopted state or, in the worst cases, a narco-state. My research, based on nearly twelve years of work as an indigenous rights lawyer in the Tarahumara region, challenges these theories.
There is no single model for the relationship between the state and armed groups: the arrangements are diverse, complex, and cannot be generalized across regions. Certainly there is a great deal of complicity, but there are also numerous instances where armed groups have had to impose their control and times when state representatives have resisted. The success or failure of those acts of resistance has often depended on the connections between the leaders of the armed groups and the state representatives, linkages which are often based in blood or marriage. In the case of La Llegada, the sectional delegate has frequently refused to comply with the orders of the jefe de plaza, particularly when those orders directly affect his economic interests or those of the local government. That resistance is possible, however, because he is the first cousin of the jefe de plaza’s boss. The boss, who some call “el mero mero sabor ranchero,” controls multiple plazas in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora.
It is important to note that in the small communities of the Tarahumara, the representatives of the state have always operated outside the bounds of the law. When we talk about the state, we often think in the macro and we imagine major players: federal officials, governors, judges, and mayors. In the Sierra Tarahumara, the principle representation of the state is often the head of the municipal delegation, often called the presidente seccional. Those who fill this position often lack the economic or professional resources for the tasks they are entrusted. They do what they can with what they have, and often that means the easiest (and sometimes only) way to get certain things done is to go outside the law and beyond their authority. The primary qualification for serving as this representative of state power is to be mestizo, male, and autocratic, which leads me to the next point.
My research shows that the groups that traffic drugs, particularly the leaders of the armed groups, do not need (nor do they want) to mimic the state, nor do they desire to take its place to exercise social, economic, and political control in the Tarahumara region. This is because those groups belong to a system of power that is much older and stronger than the state: colonialism.
In the Tarahumara region, as in many other indigenous regions of the country, illegality and violence have been the rule rather than the exception. For years, racism condemned these communities to marginalization, social neglect, and economic exploitation. This mixture helped produce various alternative, violent forms of authority, including rural fiefdoms known as cacicazgos. These systems of local domination were legitimated through elected offices, including municipal presidencies, delegate positions, and ejidal commissionerships. In the community of La Llegada, for example, a handful of mestizo families (and specifically the men of those families) have occupied the community’s elected offices for many years and used their authority to overextract natural resources and exclude the indigenous population from decision-making. That the leaders of the region’s armed groups come from those same families has brought a new layer of violence to these practices of rule.
Little by little, these groups have taken over the fertile lands of the Rarámuri to cultivate opium poppies, leading to forced displacement. “They arrived at my house fully armed and asked me if I would offer my land for them to plant. I told them no, but they stayed anyway. We went to live in a cave nearby because we were scared to stay. We couldn’t plant corn because they were slow harvesting [the gum] and we couldn’t get the seeds planted in time,” a Rarámuri woman told me when we met in the municipal offices. According to the municipal delegate, there are many such cases, all on Rarámuri lands. He claims to have spoken with the jefe de plaza about the situation but has been unable to resolve the issue.
The municipal delegate also told me about several cases of abuse of Rarámuri adolescents. According to his count, in one month there were more than 40 babies born to Rarámuri minors who had been sexually assaulted by members of the armed groups. The traffickers know that the Rarámuri children are the weakest link, because in the Tarahumara region, as is true elsewhere, a woman’s status is tied directly to her male relations. And in the case of the Rarámuri men, they have almost no standing. The traffickers also know that the Rarámuri rarely seek help from the authorities, because they lack the economic resources to do so, and even when they do, they rarely receive support.
Parties in La Llegada are a perfect space to observe in vivid detail the racialized and colonial power structures that exist there. Last year I was invited to the quinceañera celebration of one of the nieces of “el mero mero sabor ranchero.” In the small dusty community, a red carpet was installed and luxury trucks paraded with dozens of elegantly dressed guests. The party took place outside the ejidal hall. Tents covered the tables, and a stage was built for the bands who would come from Sinaloa to perform.
As I walked toward the party, I was joined by a Rarámuri friend. We walked together and talked, but as we approached the tents she suddenly stopped. When I turned, I saw that the entire Rarámuri community was staying back, waiting. At the same time, I heard my name called from inside the tents, letting me know there was a spot for me at the table. It was very clear that the space was not for everyone. My friend joined the long line of Rarámuri queuing to receive a plate of food, which they would eat on the ground outside the tents. I took my place inside, at one of the tables, where I was joined by the priest, the municipal delegate and his family, and the jefe de plaza of another important town.
The conditions that have allowed armed groups to thrive in the Sierra Tarahumara are neither new nor unique, nor can they be reduced to the dichotomies of victim-victimizer or good versus bad. The structures of colonial power that place mestizo men, traffickers included, at the top of the social pyramid in indigenous regions, also exclude them from urban and professional contexts. In a way, the mestizo rural population has been racialized as an inferior subject relative to the urban mestizo population. Even the traffickers, who arrived to the party in fancy clothes and expensive vehicles, have been constructed in the collective imaginary as uncivilized, savage, and fundamentally rural.
Those same structures also ensure that the armed drug traffickers do not need the state to control their territory. The mesh of colonial, racialized, patriarchal systems of governance guarantees that those with voice and power are all part of the same group. Caciques, state representatives, and drug traffickers all benefit from the structures of colonial power that bequeathed them techniques of domination and exclusion. This, combined with their complex connection with other colonial actors (among them the state and the market) ensures their survival and power.
“Do you enjoy your work?” I finally asked Blanco. “Not at all,” he replied, “but I need the job. I have bigger dreams. I’ve studied, I’ve read more than 500 books, I know about culture. But I was put in jail, for something I didn’t do; the government accused me and even though I proved that I wasn’t to blame, it burned me. Now I have to pay to get my record cleared. As soon as I get the money, I’m gone.”
“You’ll be able to leave? I’ve heard that once you’re involved, you can’t get out,” I responded.
“Those are drunkards’ tales.”
Fátima del Rocio Valdivia Ramírez is the Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos e Indígenas A.C. She holds a law degree from the Universidad de Guanajuato, a MA in Social Anthropology from CIESAS, and is currently completing her doctorate in Latin American Studies at UT Austin.
 He lives in Sonora, but was born and raised in La Llegada, and his parents and some of his siblings continue to live there. His father, in fact, is one of the ejidal administrators.