The Drug Runners
The Tarahumara of northern Mexico became famous for their ability to run incredibly long distances. In recent years, cartels have exploited their talents by forcing them to ferry drugs into the U.S. Now, with their land ravaged by violence, they’re running for their lives.
Read when you’ve got time to spare.
Photos by David Ramos.
It was a half hour after midnight and Silvino Cubesare Quimare was approaching the ghost town of Separ, in southwest New Mexico. Tall and lithe, his skin browned from years of laboring under the desert sun, he strode through the darkness. Strapped to his back were two homespun burlap packs, one filled with 45 pounds of marijuana bricks and the other with enough burritos and gallon jugs of water to survive another week in the wilderness. With him were five cousins and a nephew, each shouldering a similar load. They trudged silently past the scars of an old copper mining trail, long-gone railroad tracks and trading posts that once upon a time exchanged men, minerals, and equipment across the border to Chihuahua. Up ahead, they saw the lights of a highway and knew they were within a dozen miles of their drop-off. They’d reach it before daybreak.
It was April 2, 2010, and over five days they had traveled roughly five hundred miles from their village of Huisuchi, in the remote Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico. For months, Huisuchi had been cursed with drought. Though clouds had gathered off and on over the villagers’ homes—dark, billowing masses that overshadowed their huts among the fields of corn—it had not rained. The villagers had danced, and their children had tossed handfuls of water toward the sky, asking their god Onorúame for help, but relief had not come. By early spring their corn was burned on the stalk. Rather than face starvation, Silvino’s cousins had approached him with an idea: they could go on a drug-running mission across the border. It was a quick-paying job, and it would help their village. “You’re strong and you know the way,” they pleaded. “You’ve done this before.”
Silvino, a farmer with four children, knew the canyons the way urban dwellers know city streets: every rock, cactus, and river bend was a sign.
In fact, Silvino had carried a mochila, as the narcos called it, three times before. The reasons for this were, in some ways, fated. His people, an indigenous tribe of roughly 70,000 known as the Tarahumara, had originated on the lush plains east of the mountains. But beginning in the sixteenth century the tribe fled Spanish invaders, Jesuit missionaries, and Mexican settlers—and their fatal diseases, forced labor, and attempted conversions—retreating into the Sierra Madre’s forbidding landscape. They settled what would come to be known as the Sierra Tarahumara, an expansive network of canyons that are, at some points, deeper than the Grand Canyon, dropping 6,140 feet through three ecosystems. The most famous section, covered with lichen, is the color of oxidized copper. When the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz stopped at the edge of one of these canyons, Urique, in the late nineteenth century, he couldn’t imagine anyone living below. In his book on his travels through the Sierra Madre mountains, Unknown Mexico, he recounts that when the Jesuits first arrived and asked the Tarahumara about the canyon’s depth, they replied, “Only the birds know.”
For centuries the Tarahumara got by as subsistence farmers. Their huts clung to the granite slopes and crevices of the canyons, which are connected by a vast system of narrow footpaths. In these rugged gorges, they developed a unique running style that eventually brought them fame. Either barefoot or in sandals (called huaraches) made from old tire treads and goat hide, they were able to traverse seemingly super-human distances. “Tarahumara” is a Spanish corruption of the tribe’s name, Rarámuri, meaning “ones with light feet” or “foot runners.”
Maria Juana Ramirez at the Cerocahui ultramarathon (37 miles) in Urique Canyon in October 2016.
Traditionally they ran as a form of religious ritual, such as to celebrate the harvest, in two-team races called rarajipari. For up to 24 hours—and sometimes longer—they kicked a small wooden ball across a rocky trail, and by the end of the race, teams often had only a few men left standing. But besides stamina, rarajipari demanded selflessness and strategy. In the days leading up to the race, competitors ground corn for an energy drink called pinole (and set aside a fermented version as their post-race celebratory beer, tesgüino). The afternoon before, the two teams walked the course, quarreling over its design and the number of laps. During the race, the slower runners tended to set the early pace, while the closers bided their time. Spectators wagered clothes, goats, or money on the outcome and lit the way at night with pine-resin torches.
The tribe’s runners had never ventured far from home and remained largely unknown until 1993, when an opportunistic American photographer named Rick Fisher brought several members, including a 55-year-old grandfather and a 40-something goat farmer, to an old Colorado mining town called Leadville to enter its 100-mile ultramarathon. The race was part of the budding sport of extreme long-distance trail running, in which race lengths range from slightly longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon to more than 150 miles. Wearing sandals and swigging beers at the final aid station before the finish, the Tarahumara runners captured first, second, and fifth place and left behind hundreds of mesmerized competitors and fans.
Fisher struck deals with sponsors; he paid his runners with bags of corn and beans. When he returned with seven new competitors in 1994, they dominated the race again. The American ultramarathoner Micah True got to know some of the Tarahumara runners in Leadville, and he was so changed by the experience that he later moved to the Sierra Madre. But by the time he arrived, what he found was troubling: because of years of drought, famine, and encroaching cartel violence, in some areas the tribe’s running traditions were almost entirely dormant. Meanwhile, as ultramarathons surged in popularity, American runners began crushing previously held records. True wondered how they would fare against the Tarahumara, and he sought to revitalize these local traditions. In 2006, he persuaded Scott Jurek, the top American, to travel to Urique Canyon for a trail race he was organizing that is now known as the Ultra Caballo Blanco. He enticed locals to enter by promising food vouchers to anyone who finished. He also enlisted the two best Tarahumara runners: Silvino, who was 28 at the time, and his younger cousin Arnulfo Quimare Qui.
Silvino, a farmer with four children, knew the canyons the way urban dwellers know city streets: every rock, cactus, and river bend was a sign. He’d run rarajipari as a boy, and, per Tarahumara tradition, gambled on the race from an early age, winning soap, pens, and sometimes even a chicken. Running was in his blood. His mother had been a running champion in her day, and one of her sisters was the mother of Arnulfo, his greatest competitor. At the Caballo Blanco, both Silvino and Arnulfo proved themselves, and though Jurek passed Silvino near the end of the 47 miles, he couldn’t catch Arnulfo.
The journalist Christopher McDougall chronicled the race, and his ensuing book—Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen—became an international sensation, igniting a global running craze. He attributed part of the Tarahumara’s success to their minimal footwear; they ran with a lightness unfamiliar to American runners, landing on the midpoint of their foot instead of the heel. International runners and film crews descended on the Sierra Tarahumara. Multinational corporations seized the merchandising opportunities, and soon, people all over the world were wearing barefoot-style shoes. It seemed that everyone profited except the Tarahumara.
Mexican cartels, meanwhile, recognized an opportunity for a different sort of international commerce. Though the Tarahumara largely kept to themselves, poverty and hunger made them targets for narcos looking for mules willing to make the demanding trek to designated drug drop-off points in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Cartel recruiters trolled the gas stations and plazas of small Mexican towns. They bought blue jeans for those wearing traditional loincloths and paired them with guides to lead them to the border at night. In the Tarahumara, the cartels found literal drug runners, who not only could cover incredible distances but were desperate enough to do it.
Silvino Cubesare Quimare in the fields near the town of Urique.
Silvino, with his farmland afflicted by unrelenting drought, was one of the desperate ones, so he signed on to tote drugs. Still, he got paid only if he successfully completed his mission. His first time, in 2005, he did just that, tossing his mochila into the back of a truck on a highway near El Paso. The second time, he completed his drop at a fancy hotel outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. The third time, though, in February 2007, Border Patrol agents found him and two others hiding in creosote bushes one hundred miles west of Las Cruces, with three backpacks that totaled 194 pounds. He was arrested and sentenced to eight months. And so when Micah True hosted the second Caballo Blanco, Silvino couldn’t make the race; he was sitting in a New Mexico prison.
After his release, it took Silvino two months to get home. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents left him in Juárez without enough money for a bus ticket home. He found a friend to front him enough to get to Janos, the first town on his route back. Once there, he picked chiles to earn the bus fare farther south to Chihuahua City, where he finally cobbled together the fare to Huisuchi by making cheese at a quesería.
Silvino swore he would never run drugs again, but by 2010, there was still not enough food to eat. His wife, Hilda, begged him not to go, but he felt he had no choice. He and his cousins would be paid 15,000 pesos ($825) apiece. In one week, he could make what usually took three months of labor in the Sierra—and there was little work. “A mí me vale,” Silvino told his wife. I think it’s worth it.
Now here he was, with six members of his own family—nearly a year after Born to Run had become an international best seller—striding through the dark up the boot heel of New Mexico. During the day, they slept beneath frayed creosote bushes, concealing their bags nearby, and at night they trudged north toward the freeway, avoiding rattlesnakes, coyotes, and most of all, la migra, the Border Patrol. They were close now, a few hours from their destination.
Then, all at once, they saw the spotlights. The Border Patrol had found them. Silvino flung his bags into the sand and began to run. Not again, he thought. He feared what might happen to his family if he went back to federal prison. An agent on a dirt bike tore after him as the others scattered. Silvino felt the adrenaline course through him, and he told himself to escape to the mountains they’d crossed on their way north. Amid the tall gray peaks and dry basins, he’d be harder to catch. Looking behind him, Silvino could see his nephew Luis flagging, but he couldn’t wait. He zigzagged around scrawny desert saplings, while the shadows cast by the dirt bike’s spotlight darted around him. He moved swiftly. He was conditioned to navigating switchbacks. Muy ligero, he told himself. Light-footed.
Soon the sound of the dirt bike faded. He had escaped, but Silvino continued running through the night, slept half of the next day, and then ran through the afternoon and the next night. He crossed abandoned desert valleys on old Apache land with nothing to eat, drinking only dung-infested runoff water. Two days later, he reached Ascensión, close to where they’d picked up the drugs. None of his companions had made it out. He had run one hundred miles.
Pinto Canyon Road, near Marfa, Texas. Photo by John Davidson.
Paul Chambers was sitting in his Alpine office when he got an email about a new client named Sebastian Vega Genoveva waiting for him in jail. It was March 2015, and the 27-year-old, with sandy-brown hair and a neatly cropped beard, was fresh out of law school. Unlike many of his classmates, he didn’t have to wait long for work. Not in West Texas.
Remote and rugged, West Texas, along with much of the southwestern United States, has long been a key drug-smuggling corridor. But in the nineties, as Mexican cartels rose in power relative to their Colombian counterparts—who preferred to traffic through South Florida—West Texas became even more essential. In the past twenty years, there has been a fivefold increase in Border Patrol agents working that stretch of border, up to nearly 20,000. By 2015, the tiny office of the federal public defenders in Alpine was tasked with the second-largest caseload in Texas, behind El Paso. Meanwhile, budget cuts meant the number of lawyers (four) stayed the same. The vast majority of cases were for illegal entry—immigration crimes eclipsed all other federal offenses—but they also saw increased numbers of traffickers. Many of these were caught and processed as so-called backpacker cases: groups of six or more Mexican men arrested in the mountains, each carrying about 45 pounds of marijuana. Unable to afford lawyers, each defendant was assigned one by the court. Federal public defenders were typically appointed the first defendant, and private attorneys, like Chambers, were tasked with the rest.
Scanning his new client’s arrest report, Chambers expected the details to coalesce into the usual pattern, but he noticed an anomaly.
Scanning his new client’s arrest report, Chambers expected the details to coalesce into the usual pattern, but he noticed an anomaly. When Border Patrol agents arrested this group of six and weighed the marijuana bricks—all 256 pounds—they realized that one felt different. Unwrapping it, they discovered a plastic container with a pound of methamphetamine inside. In backpacker cases, each defendant is on the hook for the entire load, not merely his own. Chambers dug out the sentencing guidelines: a scant .11 pounds of meth would double their potential sentences, from five to ten years. He dreaded telling his client.
The next day, he drove two hours with Liz Rogers, a thirty-year former federal defender known for pulling out long-shot victories, to the West Texas Detention Facility, in Sierra Blanca, to see Vega. Rogers, a family friend, was now a private attorney and had also been assigned a member of the group.
When Chambers was still in law school, in 2012, Rogers had helped introduce him to the federal courts that were handling the influx of people and drugs coming across the border. He accompanied her to court as an intern. He’d expected to see one person on trial. Instead, groups of up to two dozen Mexican nationals at a time, arrested for smuggling drugs or illegal entry, were marched in front of the judge throughout the day. Any other way, Chambers learned, and the courthouse would be backed up for years. That summer, he saw around four hundred cases come through the Alpine office, and within a few years its annual caseload had more than doubled. Chambers returned to school with one of Rogers’s mantras ringing in his ears: “procedural due process,” as opposed to actual due process. In one of his ethics courses, he told the class that what they were learning was a fantasy. “Well, that may happen there,” the professor responded, “but that’s not the way it’s supposed to happen.”
When Chambers arrived at the detention facility, the 39-year-old Vega stood up to greet his lawyer. The six-foot-two Chambers towered over him by more than a foot. At first, Vega didn’t seem to understand what Chambers was saying through his translator. Finally, after a few hours, Vega asked the translator if she could speak more slowly. He explained that Spanish was his second language. Vega, it turned out, was a Tarahumara.
Paul Chambers outside his Alpine law office on June 22, 2017. Photo by John Davidson.
Vega and his family had fled the canyons to find work in Chihuahua, and though he got a job as a brickmaker, it barely sustained them. Soon he was recruited to run drugs into Texas. He’d hoped that once there he could stay a short time and work—in the Permian Basin oil fields, perhaps—and then return home with money for his wife and two sons. But on the afternoon of March 6, Border Patrol agents found him and five others sleeping in the brush west of Marfa. After walking for ten days in the harsh borderland, their guide had abandoned them that morning.
As Chambers listened, he was struck by Vega’s guilelessness. Vega readily told him what had happened—as he did to the agents who arrested him, along with all but one in his group—but when Chambers described his offense, Vega couldn’t understand why the charges were so severe. How could he be responsible for all the backpacks when he only carried one? It didn’t make sense, Vega said, and worse, it was unfair.
Competitors from all over the world, electrified by "Born to Run", made the pilgrimage to the Tarahumara homeland. But racing couldn’t alleviate the hardships ravaging the Tarahumara themselves.
Chambers was impressed; none of his other clients had ever commented on the injustice of the law. He called his colleague and friend Jaime Escuder, who had also been assigned a defendant in the case. Escuder had recently defended a Tarahumara man in his fifties who, they realized, had been in Vega’s brickmaking crew. They lived in the same indigent neighborhood on the edge of Chihuahua. Escuder’s client had been sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison—six months longer than others in his group because he’d had the misfortune of appearing before a different judge. Around the same time, federal defenders in Alpine had represented a pair of Tarahumara teenagers also recruited in Chihuahua. While working a job canning chiles, they were told they could earn twice as much at a pecan orchard near the Rio Grande. When they arrived at the orchard, there were no pecans. Investigators from the federal public defender’s office had seen Tarahumara come through their West Texas offices for five years, as had their colleagues in nearby Las Cruces.
Chambers turned to the internet. He read about races that went on for several days and about the ultramarathon that now brought the best long-distance runners to the Sierra Madre. He read about villages that had no electricity or running water and that were full of ex-felons. The news coverage he could find estimated that more than a hundred Tarahumara had been arrested during the previous decade, but unless the defendants had to have a Rarámuri translator, like Escuder’s, their background had probably never come up. The actual number was likely much higher.
When he met Vega again, Chambers jokingly asked, “If you could run like that, why didn’t you escape?” Vega said he never could have evaded the agents in their trucks and helicopters. Chambers nodded. There were some things you couldn’t outrun.
In March 2010, a month before Silvino’s narrow escape in New Mexico, the annual Ultra Caballo Blanco had drawn a record number of international participants to Urique Canyon. Competitors from all over the world, electrified by Born to Run, made the pilgrimage to the Tarahumara homeland. But racing couldn’t alleviate the hardships ravaging the Tarahumara themselves. That year, many had shown up to the event starving, walking or hitchhiking from hundreds of miles around, bringing only the clothes on their backs. Urique’s head of tourism watched in tears as Tarahumara runners collapsed. Silvino could only muster twenty-fifth place.
Silvino on the cover of Runner’s World Mexico.
A few years earlier, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels had begun escalating their fight for control of billion-dollar fields of marijuana and poppy in the so-called Golden Triangle, where the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango converge in the Sierra. To meet the surging demand for heroin in the United States, they also began seizing additional farmland in order to increase poppy cultivation. Many Tarahumara were forced to grow these crops, their wages docked and their land stolen. By 2010, entire communities had emptied out of the canyons, and some ten thousand had fled to the city of Chihuahua, where they were more easily conscripted into smuggling. There, it also became common to see Tarahumara children begging or selling candy and key chains on the streets.
For Silvino, new opportunities eventually arose from the attention generated by the book. Organizers across the world sought Tarahumara runners for their races, and those who moved comfortably among chabochi, or outsiders, began receiving regular invitations to race. So, after returning from his aborted drug run, Silvino saw his racing career take off. He finished second in an ultramarathon in Austria, the first of many races in more than half a dozen countries where his expenses were paid and the possible earnings were worth the trip. After successes in Costa Rica and Spain, he landed on the cover of Runner’s World México, in December 2014. He built a small adobe house for his wife and children and another for his parents and siblings, and he fixed up an old truck so he could bring his harvest into the town of Urique to sell. Still, racing never provided a stable income for Silvino—prize money wasn’t guaranteed—and most of the Tarahumara fared far worse.
As the cartel war ricocheted from one canyon to the next, Urique became one of the last towns to be engulfed by intense violence. It had once served as an outpost for tourists exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding canyons, which helped keep it relatively tranquil until a Sinaloa boss’s nephew was murdered there, in late 2014. From then on gunfire could routinely be heard in the town and up the canyon. In the days leading up to the 2015 Ultra Caballo Blanco, an eight-hour battle erupted in a village along the planned racecourse. International runners arrived to find armed gangs in the streets of Urique, while local government officials assured the competitors there were no problems. A day before the race, however, Juárez hit men stormed the police station, seizing two officers and a teenager, and American organizers called off the race. Most of the visiting runners, who had come from 23 countries, made their way out under military escort. More than five hundred Tarahumara, Silvino included, resolved to carry on anyway, and the mayor agreed to a version that cut out the downriver loop, where the major shoot-out had occurred.
A few months later, Sinaloa won control of the area—nearly a dozen planes flew out of the town of Urique in one day with the remaining Juárez fighters—but conditions worsened. With the Sinaloa in command, land theft and poppy growing increased.
Some Tarahumara activists tried to make their plight known, like Irma Chávez Cruz, a 25-year-old mother who was a friend of Silvino’s. Chávez had learned Spanish as a teenager, to serve as an interpreter for her people, then earned a university degree in ecology and gotten elected to local government. She worried about Tarahumara children losing their running traditions, so she regularly put on races in the region, including all-female events called ariweta. She helped organize the largest-ever recorded rarajipari in Chihuahua—Silvino led one of the teams—and together they traveled to Brazil, in October 2015, for the inaugural World Indigenous Games. The next year, Chávez ran in the Boston Marathon (possibly the first Tarahumara woman to do so) and, while there, spoke on a panel about indigenous running traditions. Together with her father, an activist, musician, and poet known as Makawi, she pleaded for government officials in Chihuahua to help prevent drug traffickers from stealing their land and their water. But help never came, and speaking out became risky. According to the Mexico City–based magazine Proceso, at least five indigenous activists were assassinated in 2015 and 2016.
In the summer of 2016, drug traffickers moved on the town of Basihuare, near Chávez’s hometown of Rejogochi, stealing the funds from the town’s ejido, a government-supported agriculture cooperative. After razing the corn and bean fields, they planted poppies instead.
Mickey Mahaffey, a 64-year-old American, has lived among the Tarahumara for two decades. Last summer, he hired Silvino to help manage a chia cultivation project.
That same summer, Silvino landed a job as a manager for a chia cultivation project for 400 pesos (about $20) a day. A fine salary, but it was an experimental crop: a 64-year-old American named Mickey Mahaffey, who had lived among the Tarahumara for two decades and married Silvino’s younger sister, Carmen, struck up a deal to grow eight acres for an energy-bar company based in Richmond, Virginia. Even for a strong farmer like Silvino, who used oxen to plough his fields in Huisuchi, cultivating chia in Urique proved biblical in its afflictions. In the middle of August, Silvino and seven others cleared eight acres of weeds by hand amid a plague of red ants, tarantulas, bees, gnats, flies, scorpions, snakes, floods, and 125-degree heat. It doubled as his race training.
Silvino couldn’t compete in the U.S. because of his arrest record, but he still needed to race to remain financially free of the cartels, so he often stuck to races closer to home, like the upcoming ultramarathon in Cerocahui, which included a four-thousand-foot ascent up a road out of Urique. Two runners in their mid-twenties were planning to challenge him, and the prize for winning was significant: 14,000 pesos ($765), which, coincidentally, was nearly the going rate for running drugs across the border.
If circumstances once again drove Silvino to carry another drug load, he’d be risking a potentially lengthy prison term. Chambers had seen many of these harsh sentences handed out, including to drug runners who were essentially forced into smuggling. Still, of the dozens and dozens of clients he’d defended, it was Vega, and the plight of the Tarahumara, that stuck with him.
Chambers grew up on the border. His late paternal grandfather, Boyd, was a rancher on the Sierra Vieja, a small mountain range that locals call the Candelaria Rimrock, after the nearest town. Roughly forty miles northwest of Big Bend Ranch State Park, it is a place of extremes, a dry, barren land that is only ever hot or cold. It’s untamable, though his family certainly tried. Like the Tarahumara, the Chambers clan was inexorably tied to their land.
Growing up, his love for the ranch—bouncing over Capote Creek in his grandfather’s truck, watching the men ride out with the cattle while mounted on his own pony—was matched by his admiration for the tough people who worked it. Chambers remembers his grandfather watching the Weather Channel regularly, hoping for rain. To help keep them on the ranch, his grandmother Johnnie earned a teaching degree from Sul Ross State University in her forties, and she ran the two-room schoolhouse in Candelaria for 25 years. His grandfather served as a Presidio County commissioner and was often asked to resolve border disputes privately. Back then, nationality didn’t matter as much; people were simply trying to make ends meet on both sides of the Rio Grande.
When I visited Chambers at his office in January, his desk was makeshift: two long folding tables down the hall from a few other lawyers in a one-story brick building on the main street. The white stucco walls were empty; his diplomas were stored at his fiancée’s house. There was little to give away his roots. Then again, he spent much of his life severed from them.
The prize for winning was significant: 14,000 pesos ($765), which, coincidentally, was nearly the going rate for running drugs across the border.
In late 1991, when Chambers was four, his father was arrested in the largest drug bust on record in West Texas. Federal and state drug enforcement agents arrested Glyn Robert Chambers and the popular sheriff of Presidio County, Rick Thompson, after an informant tipped them off to a red horse trailer containing 2,400 pounds of cocaine on the fairgrounds in Marfa. It was big news, from the Big Bend Sentinel (“The Marfa Coke Bust,” it blared) all the way to the New York Times. There was no trial. They both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life in prison. (Robert Chambers was released in 2005 after serving 13 years. Thompson is scheduled to get out April 14, 2018.)
Chambers remembers law enforcement coming to his house after his father had been arrested, though he was too young to comprehend the reason. He grew up believing he’d never see him again outside of prison. His mother, Christine, didn’t want to stay in Alpine because of the publicity. They moved up and down the Interstate 35 corridor so often that Chambers lost count of the number of schools he attended. It may have been thirty. When he was thirteen, they went to live with his mother’s family, in Abilene. There was no sewer connection in their trailer, and electricity came from an extension cord that stretched from his grandparents’ house. Soon after, his mother was arrested for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. In the years ahead, she cycled in and out of prison for similar charges. A pair of uncles on his mom’s side also went to prison for drug offenses, and so did a paternal uncle. He became frustrated with the legal system, which he felt was too focused on punishing his family members for their addictions rather than helping them.
After going to law school, in northwest Indiana, he thought he’d never return to West Texas, but it was Liz Rogers who persuaded him to come back. Rogers also came from a ranching family, and she found her calling with the federal defenders. In time, the backpackers she’d come to represent were known to ask for her by name. Chambers never forgot that first time he accompanied Rogers to jail as an intern. Her caseload was so large she had to meet with up to nine clients at a time, but she patiently explained to each one how their case would unfold and made them all laugh. He knew he’d never be able to hold an audience like that, but he realized then that this work was what he wanted to do.
Helping clients like Vega affirmed his decision, though it also generated no shortage of heartbreak. Six months after Vega’s case landed on Chambers’s desk, he managed to beat the meth rap. But Vega pleaded guilty to the marijuana charge; there was no other recourse. Vega didn’t know the men who’d recruited him, which is typical in backpacker cases, so they didn’t have any information to offer prosecutors in exchange for a shorter sentence. As a result, Vega—performing the lowest, most expendable role in the drug trade—carried the burden himself. Chambers told Vega that it was a good deal, and it helped when the Federal Bureau of Prisons sent back a recommendation of 46 months instead of 60. Even still, looking at the slight, dark-haired, shackled Vega, his anger bubbled up. Chambers thought about how Vega wouldn’t be there for his two sons as they grew into their teens. He knew what an absence like that could do to a family.
A month later, Chambers stood next to Vega again—this time in an El Paso courtroom—for a second and final hearing on his slightly improved sentence. In Spanish, the judge ran through the conditions of the imprisonment twice so Vega could understand. Then the judge asked Vega if he had anything to add. He did. He wanted to thank his lawyer for helping him. For Chambers, it was one of the saddest days of his life.
A view of Urique Canyon.
With Vega’s case resolved, Chambers moved on. There were many others to get to, almost too many to keep up with. When I stopped by his office one afternoon to see if he would visit Candelaria with me, he declined. He told me he was too busy with his caseload to make the three-hour trip. I still wanted to see the town where he had spent time as a boy-—where many backpackers make their crossing today—so instead, I went with Rogers.
We drove west to Marfa before hooking southwest through the Chinati Mountains. Wherever I looked, in Alpine and Marfa and later Presidio, I saw makeshift villages of turnkey houses, the whitewashed barracks of Border Patrol. Rogers pulled off on Farm-to-Market Road 2810, better known as Pinto Canyon Road, where the asphalt ended. The next 21 miles were unpaved. The wide, grassy highlands behind us appeared lush compared with the volcanic landscape ahead: canyons and mesas, haystack buttes and dry arroyos, a psychedelic moonscape with no end in sight, where the only color came from the sky.
I thought about Silvino, and I told Rogers about his case. She shook her head in wonder. Had he been arrested the second time in New Mexico, she said, he would have faced a mandatory five years in prison. “There has to be a better way to deal with this,” she said. “When you’re desperate, you’ll do anything. A little time in the Western District of Texas jail isn’t going to keep you from trying to feed your family.”
At the bottom of the canyon road, the asphalt resumed at a desolate village called Ruidosa. It was twelve miles north to Candelaria, where you could stand in the middle of town and see all of it: ramshackle trailers and a few adobe houses; Johnnie Chambers’s empty schoolhouse; an abandoned church and a corrugated-metal cotton gin. We hadn’t seen another car in two hours. Candelaria was well on its way to becoming a ghost town.
We drove up a small bluff, and Rogers led me to the grave of Boyd Chambers. His black-granite headstone outshone rows of wooden crosses. Mounds of melon-size rocks blanketed every grave. “He made a living in one of the harshest lands on the continent,” Rogers said.
She sometimes joked with Chambers that he didn’t know where his grandfather was buried, but he did. He just didn’t like coming here, and I could see why. It was a place people were trying to leave—to run from—not where you go to make something of yourself. He’d told me that sometimes he felt fated to stay in West Texas, and yet he often felt apart from it.
Rogers pointed to the barely visible Rio Grande just under a mile beyond, and San Antonio del Bravo farther still. This was the most common drug crossing in her cases, she said. In fact, Vega had come this way. After crossing the river here, backpackers hike past the old Chambers ranch to the top of the Sierra Vieja, where they look for their U.S. 90 pickup. It was at least forty miles through the driest landscape I’d ever seen. The only liquids to be found were two cans of Lone Star and three cans of Bud Light that had been left for Boyd at his headstone. In the distance, Rogers noticed a cloud of black smoke rising downriver. It turned out to be people burning salt cedar, an invasive species that saps water from the earth. They were more optimistic souls in a long line of people who have tried, often futilely, to farm the floodplain.
“Imagine walking this with forty-four pounds on your back,” she said, not counting food and water. “The Tarahumara would know how to survive this. They’re some of the toughest people in the world.”
Of course, drug traffickers also know this. Last summer, according to a courtroom interpreter, one witness in a backpacker trial in Pecos said that smugglers in Ojinaga told him they only wanted to work with Tarahumara, because of their strength and endurance. Puro Tarahumara de ahora en adelante.
It was still dark when Silvino woke two hours before the big race in Cerocahui last October. His stomach was roiling. He hadn’t been feeling well and had visited a hospital the day before. He considered skipping the race, which was 37 miles, but the next event was four months away. He couldn’t count on his corn harvest to yield enough food for his family, and his chia project was still unpredictable. He had to run.
It was the eighth-annual ultramarathon here, and 120 runners, mostly Tarahumara, were going to set off from its plaza. They had come from as far away as Chihuahua, riding two buses for eleven hours combined. As Silvino left the San Isidro Lodge, where he had stayed the night, he glanced over at six mangy dogs and cats sleeping next to the embers of a nearby campfire. He looked up at the stars and thought about curses, as older Tarahumara runners tend to do before a race. He had grown up on the ancient tales of men who sprinkled bone dust on the course the night before, thought to induce fatigue in your competitors. He laughed at the memory of a rarajipari when an opposing team cast a spell on his team. His teammates became ill; he’d been the only one not stricken.
He didn’t believe in spells, but Silvino felt the pressure of what he’d come to do—not just for his own survival but for the survival of his people. The cartels were not letting up. Two weeks earlier, sicarios, or hit men, had stopped in Rejogochi to ask for Chávez, the young activist, and her father, Makawi. After drug traffickers had taken over the ejido in Basihuare, Makawi had given an interview to a newspaper in Chihuahua, describing the situation and the growing recruitment of Tarahumara youth into organized crime. In August 2016, Chávez had decried the work of the cartels in downtown Chihuahua on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples before a crowd of several thousand. Makawi had also met with the wives of those who, like Sebastian Vega, were in prison in the U.S. Word was spreading that the sicarios wanted to “eliminate” the two.
It was a twenty-minute drive downhill to the square, which Silvino would be running back up for the first leg of the race: these six miles were a steep climb of 1,500 feet. Nobody was warming up when he arrived; the Tarahumara don’t stretch. Silvino wore athletic gear and blue-and-yellow Asics—the trails were too slippery, the roads too hard, for huaraches. The female racers wore their everyday clothes: skirts full of reds, yellows, pinks, and blues, and matching head scarves to block the sun. It was cool now, but the temperature would climb into the 70s.
Ten minutes after six, the runners approached the starting line, adjacent to the three-hundred-year-old red-earthen, yellow-domed Jesuit church, and took off. The darkness lifted just beyond the otherwise dreary concrete plaza, revealing the fertile valley that gives Cerocahui its name: “between two mountains.” The slope up the mountainside was rocky and dusty, the soil eroded from years of logging and grazing. When they neared the San Isidro Lodge, Silvino was in fourth but still in range of the leaders. He passed the now extinguished fire pit and its dogs and cats, a fenced-in flock of garrulous turkeys, and local government officials eating breakfast inside the lodge’s small gazebo. From there, the runners followed white arrows spray-painted on the ground into a forest of piñon pine, juniper, and small oak trees. Sunlight broke through the slim canopy. The thick old-growth trees had been chopped down long ago and sent to the sawmills of nearby Bahuichivo. Silvino remembered the women in Huisuchi who used to weave baskets out of the pine needles.
Silvino running the Cerocahui ultramarathon, in Urique Canyon, in October 2016.
Silvino emerged from the forest onto a road—really a collection of rocks and dirt. Forty years ago, engineers had erected this road on top of an ancient Tarahumara foot trail. There were hairpin turns where the drop-off was thousands of feet, and he passed several roadside memorials. Here, Urique’s mayor and its public-works director had driven off the cliff almost four years ago. The newspapers alleged mechanical failure, but people heard otherwise: it was said that traffickers had murdered them in the middle of the night and pushed their car into the canyon. As Silvino continued to ascend, the only sounds were the buzz of white-eared hummingbirds and the musical trills of canyon and rock wrens.
At 7:48, Silvino spotted the worn arrow that directed runners to take the footpath to the scenic overlook called El Mirador del Cerro del Gallego. The explorer Lumholtz had surveyed Urique from up here more than a century ago. It was around the twelve-mile mark. He glanced over his right shoulder at the river that snaked through the canyon of the same name. Urique had an anthropomorphic quality from here: the peaks on either side of the river looked like heads, with an evergreen blanket sloped across their chests and legs. He scrambled down a cliff-side trail so narrow that only one person could traverse it at a time. Up here, he realized, right before the 2008 Semana Santa celebrations, assassins from the Sinaloa cartel had kidnapped around a dozen people from Urique—the chief of police, other officers, government officials—and beheaded all but two, whom they sent back to town, stripped naked and hands tied, to tell the story.
Silvino picked up speed as the trail descended toward the village of Porochi. He hadn’t eaten anything, not even the pocket-size bean burritos and salsa he normally ran with. He was starting to feel better—the steep climbs were behind him—and though he wouldn’t be able to catch the leader, he thought he could finish second or third. He recalled his 62-mile ultramarathon victory in Costa Rica, where he’d felt he might collapse. “I’m fighting for money,” he’d told himself. “If I don’t take the risk during a race, then I don’t get any reward.”
Silvino felt the pressure of what he’d come to do—not just for his own survival but for the survival of his people.
He passed fields with corn stalks as tall as the cabins beside them, and a few loose cows and goats. Then, with the path hugging a creek, he entered tiny Porochi. At the aid station, he declined water and collected a paper bracelet to confirm he had passed. He was in third place. The squat white ejido headquarters proclaimed Porochi as the Tierra de Corredores, or the “Land of Runners.” It was the halfway point. Silvino followed the creek, skirting red-and-white fields of poppy. The course turned toward Cerocahui on a footpath built by drug traffickers to carry out their crops.
Runners would have to reach the plaza, grab another bracelet, and then double back to the edge of town before returning. Silvino came into town only five minutes behind second place. A pair of federal police trucks rolled through with machine gunners standing in the bed, black scarves covering the bottom half of their faces. At the square, a dozen bedraggled municipal police, a few seemingly too young to grow facial hair, loitered with unloaded AK-47s—goat’s horns, they called them.
At 10:42, the first runner appeared on the cobblestone alley leading to the finish. Between sips of Guinness, the race organizer announced the winner’s name, hometown, and time. Volunteers were on hand to offer cheese sandwiches, bananas, and oranges. He crossed the finish line, accepted a sandwich, sat on a stone wall, and barely stirred for photographs with local officials. The smell of charcoal-grilled chicken filled the air.
Thirty minutes later, the second finisher arrived, and Silvino three minutes after him. There was little shade, and he dropped down on a set of steps next to four old campesinos. A pair of feral dogs dozed near Silvino’s feet. He ate a sandwich and drank a bottle of Coca-Cola. For finishing third, Silvino earned 8,000 pesos, enough to remain free of the cartels, at least for a while longer.
Early the next morning, with only a little pain in his right leg, Silvino drove in a low gear down the canyon to Urique, listening to traditional Tarahumara folk music from a USB stick connected to the CD player. Its wistful melody is reserved for joyous occasions, when Tarahumara dance to its repetitive interplay of violin and guitar. Three paper bracelets from the race still hung around his left wrist. He was back in the chia fields after breakfast.
Ryan Goldberg is a freelance journalist based in New York.