It was early last Sunday when I first saw tweets mentioning a possible famine affecting the Tarahumara Indians up in Chihuahua state.
It looked like potentially very interesting story. First, it involved the Tarahumara, famed for their prowess as extraordinary long distance runners. Many of them still live in cabins in the remote Western Sierra Madre, practicing subsistence farming.
As the day wore on, I saw this Spanish-language video of an activist in Chihuahua state suggesting that some Tarahumara had taken part in a mass suicide by jumping off a cliff because of famine.
That there is famine in that region is beyond dispute. It began with hard frosts in early 2011, and worsened with drought that officials now say is the worst in 71 years.
Let me open a little window into how my job works by describing why I did not rush on a plane to go up there _ which I certainly considered doing.
There were multiple factors. A Swedish television journalist friend and I mulled those factors over all day. If we went, we’d go together. The Tarahumara live in isolated areas far to the west of Chihuahua city. So that meant probably dedicating nearly a week to the story: A day to get up there, another day in the state capital for interviews, a third day to get out to Creel or one of the other towns closer to the area, and perhaps more time to physically walk to a village where the famine may be severe.
Compounding the planning was figuring how to do it safely. Parts of that region are overrun with gun-slinging dopers and bad guys.
By Monday, even as opponents of the federal government were opening up food drives for the Tarahumara (see #sierratarahumara on Twitter), the Calderon administration flatly denied that the Tarahumara were dying from famine. And photos all seemed to be taken from Chihuahua hospital ICUs with a few malnourished children. No photos of withered fields, emaciated adults or supposed mass suicide sites.
The (what seemed to me far-fetched) claims of a mass suicide got fuzzier by the hour. No one could say where it occurred precisely.
So by the end of Monday, calculating the time, energy and possible danger a trip would potentially entail, and balancing those factors with no certain knowledge that Tarahumaras really are perishing, I decided to keep an eye on the issue but put it on a back burner. What’s really going on up there? Can’t tell you for sure. Given that it is an election year, such matters can also be manipulated for electoral reasons. For now, I’ll keep reading the Spanish language reports and work on other stories.
Earlier today, the Calderon government said it had delivered 14,000 meal packets to Chihuahua for distribution at 104 Tarahumara centers in the region. They sent the photo above.
Maybe its CYA, but the Cabinet-level official in charge, Social Development Secretary Heriberto Felix Guerra, said in a statement that the central government is offering “extraordinary help” to the Tarahumara and that no one will be left hungry or in need.
Making judgments about all this is an inexact science. But until I have better evidence otherwise, I’m inclined to believe him.
Update: The Univision network has this English language post debunking the idea of mass suicide among the Tarahumara. As reporters, when we find one major aspect wrong with a story, we generally assume there may be more aspects that are inflated, exaggerated or incorrect as well. Univision quotes a journalist saying, "This (story) was driven by social media." It's a cautionary note about what shows up on Twitter.