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Tarahumara Indians Suffer Disease, Economic Exploitation, Abuse

January 16, 1991 GMT

CHIHUAHUA, Mexico (AP) _ Brotherhood binds the Tarahumara Indians. They live by the tenet, ″Today for you, tomorrow for me.″

Relations with the ″chabochi,″ as they call the white man, are more difficult.

Tarahumaras can run deer and horses to exhaustion. In the life-and-death race with disease, hunger, and exploitation, they are losing.

Efforts to help them have attractd attention to the gentle tribe, whose bad luck with civilization mirrors that of other Indians.

Most of the nation’s 81 million people are of mixed Spanish and Indian blood. Between 10 million and 20 million are pure Indian, divided among 56 tribes that speak more than 100 dialects.

Mexico takes pride in the ancient cultures of the Aztecs, Olmecs and Mayas, but the Spanish who arrived in the 16th century brought them enslavement, forced conversion to Christianity and the ravages of disease.

The customs and languages of several tribes were wiped out while the government tried to integrate them.

About 60,000 Tarahumaras roam the Copper Canyon, four times the size of the Grand Canyon, in the rugged Sierra Tarahumara, the southern range of the Rocky Mountains in Chihuahua state.

They live an almost aboriginal existence, fishing and hunting in the cool plateaus in summer and moving to the semitropical canyon floor in winter.

Tarahumara women, who dress in full skirts and loose blouses of bright- colored cotton, giggle or turn away when a stranger speaks to them. Men usually have a better command of Spanish, and answer questions briefly and politely.

Malnutrition makes the Tarahumaras susceptible to diarrhea, tuberculosis and measles, which often prove fatal.

No figures exist, but anthropologists, human rights activists and health officials say the death rate for children under 5 is extremely high.

Sixteen children under age 2 were being treated for tuberculosis at the Jesuit-run Santa Teresita clinic in Creel, and as many more for severe malnutrition.

Dr. Carlos Nesbitt, the clinic director, said half of the patients show signs of tuberculosis. He said the percentage seemed valid for the entire Tarahumara population.

During a measles epidemic in 1989, he said, 40 of the 150 patients treated at the clinic died.

State and private organizations respond with more health clinics, roving medical brigades and vaccination campaigns.

Dr. Julio Mercado Castruita, director of the Mexican Institute of Social Security in Chihuahua state, said there were 100 federal clinics and three hospitals in Tarahumara country and seven more clinics would open this year.

Jesuits run three smaller hospitals.

Martha Tello Diaz of of the state agency responsible for the Tarahumaras, said lack of education was part of the problem. Only 18 percent of Tarahumaras finish primary school and many teachers have not completed secondary school.

″They are not prepared to work an ejido (state-owned farm) properly or deal with the outside world,″ she said.

The outside world is coming to the Tarahumaras. They have been exploited, for example, by lumber companies that buy trees from their rich pine forests at incredibly low prices.

″We have had problems because of geographic inaccessibility and cultural barriers, like language,″ said Dr. Lidia Luis Romero of the state secretary of health’s office.

″Now we go with translators, and the army has taken us into some areas by helicopter.″

That same army has violated the human rights of the Tarahumaras under the guise of fighting the drug traffic, said Emilia Gonzalez de Sandoval of the state Commission of Solidarity and Defense of Human Rights.

Drug traffickers plant marijuana and poppy plants in isolated Chihuahua, then recruit impoverished Tarahumaras to harvest the crops.

Ms. Gonzalez said confessions were beaten out of Tarahumaras and no translators were provided for hearings and trials.

″The women were raped by army men,″ she said. ″The men were tortured into confessing about the drug crops. The communities were terrorized.″

Paola Stefani, an anthropologist at the School of Anthropology and History in Chihuahua, said: ″They are the ones who go to jail, not the big drug traffickers.″

According to Ms. Gonzalez, that has changed since the human rights commission began denouncing abuses two years ago.

She said it found no reason to file complaints against soldiers or police in a year. The government recently ordered that interpretors be provided for interrogations and trials of Indian suspects and reduced the value of confessions as evidence in order to remove a temptation for torture.

Volunteers are teaching the Tarahumaras their rights and what to do if the rights are violated, Ms. Gonzalez said.

″Torture is a practice we live with in Mexico every day,″ she said in an interview. ″It’s something very normal in our culture. We have to make them conscious that changing that is the job of the entire community.″

An agreement signed in September by the National Indigenous Institute and the federal attorney general’s office promised a review of criminal cases involving jailed Indians.

Alvaro Perez Aguirre, director of state agency responsible for the tribe, said 15 of 23 Indians imprisoned for common crimes had been released since then. He said seven convicted of federal drug crimes had been freed and an estimated 80 percent of the 48 awaiting trial probably would be let go.

Since 1989, Perez said, translators had been provided for every trial.

The federal government is trying to set up a new system of education that would introduce Spanish gradually and use texts in indigenous dialects.

A $95 million road-improvement program financed by the federal government and World Bank is intended to help the Tarahumaras make their forests more productive.

These programs frighten some Tarahumaras, but others realize they are inevitable and may help.

Veronica, a 16-year-old Tarahumara, came to the Santa Teresita clinic nearly a year ago to work and serve as a translator.

″I didn’t want to come, but now I like it,″ she said, changing a crying baby’s shirt. ″Now I will be able to help my people.″