By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press
GUACHOCHI, Mexico (AP) — It's been months since Maria Luisa Gonzalez and her husband have been able to harvest anything from their drought-parched land or catch fish in a lake that's become little more than a muddy puddle.
Like other Tarahumara Indians suffering from severe drought in Mexico's vast northern canyons, Gonzalez said she had yet to receive any aid last week, nearly two months after President Felipe Calderon said that he had assessed the drought's damage and his government was tending to the crisis.
The federal Interior Department declared a state of emergency in 37 Sierra Madre municipalities in the Tarahumara region on Jan. 3.
The first major batch of federal help showed up Thursday with great media fanfare, including Calderon and First Lady Margarita Zavala loading a navy plane with boxes of groceries on a rural landing strip in Chihuahua state, where the Tarahumara live in the crannies of a natural wonder that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.
"I want to emphasize the Sierra Tarahumara is a top priority in my administration," Calderon said in a press conference, adding that the navy was delivering 119 tons of food.
Gonzalez, however, said such promises have been empty since their October crops yielded no corn potatoes or beans.
"We hadn't received anything," the 67-year-old said. "If this continues, we will starve to death because what are we going to eat? It's dry. The lake is dry."
Calderon first said Dec. 1 that his government was on top of the crisis, caused by the worst drought to hit northern Mexico in 70 years. A trip to the region late last by The Associated Press showed families picking up private donations but nothing from the government. Even Chihuahua officials say the response has been slow.
"They took a long time," said Jesus Velasquez, coordinator of a program delivering state resources to the Tarahumara. He also coordinates the food relief efforts with the navy and private groups. "There wasn't a federal program until now, until the president came. We still need to know how much," he said,
The federal government issued a statement Saturday responding to AP questions showing Calderon delivering food and blankets on Nov. 30. "The support has intensified since January, incorporating the army and the navy," the statement said.
The federal Social Development Department began distributing boxes with 10 kilos of food each in 107 shelters in the region on Jan. 24. Deputy Secretary Luis Mejia told the AP that sending food took time because officials could only plan logistics after the state of emergency was declared.
Meanwhile, the plight of the Tarahumara has become an easy photo op, as well as a convenient button to push in an election year for Mexicans, who draw pride from their indigenous groups as well as embarrassment when reminded how poorly they live.
Enrique Pena Nieto, the opposition front-runner in this year's presidential race, went to the region two days later to declare the government was doing nothing to help.
Everyone from Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard to political parties, running groups and everyday people have organized relief efforts for the Tarahumara. Also known as Raramuris, they have long been a symbol of strength and self-reliance for Mexicans and inspired ultra-marathoners worldwide because they run up to 60 miles at a time tirelessly through the mountains in little more than sandals.
Residents of the town of Laguna de Aboreachi said they saw the first aid shipment come last week not from the government but from a Mexico City-based nonprofit rescue team known as the Topos, Spanish for moles. The group sent a truck loaded with 14 tons of food, water, blankets and used clothes.
The town is only an hour away from Guachochi, the state distribution center for aid to 250,000 Tarahumara in the Sierra Madre mountains. Before the federal push last week, the AP saw no signs of a major relief effort under way. State officials say they've been distributing help since November and still have only reached half of the 70,000 needy families. The 110 pounds of corn, 44 tons of beans and four tons of pork given to each family only last about a month, and his aid workers are supposed to make another round of deliveries when the food runs out.