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Batopilas, Chihuahua, Mexico-- We were walking back to our hotel after an early dinner. It was still light, and a few teenage boys were kicking a soccer ball around the town square. This scene could be taking place in any one of a thousand towns in Mexico, but there was one detail that was disconcertingly different--one of the boys was playing with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. I would have loved to sneak a picture, but the boys didn't take their eyes off of us as we walked down the street.
Most people that visit the Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, ride the scenic train El Chepe from Chihuahua to Los Mochis or vice versa, but they never really venture down in the canyons. The US State Department has issued warnings about travel in the area, because the drug cartels not only grow the raw products for drug production, ie., opium poppies and marijuana, but these remote canyons are along major drug importation routes from other countries. You are warned to stay out of the canyons, and that if you do go, to go with a knowledgeable guide.
When we were planning our trip to the canyons, we didn't want to just experience the canyons from the window of the train--we wanted to see the spectacular scenery, the indigenous Tarahumara people, and see what life was really like down in the canyons. We saw a rugged and beautiful landscape, and local people who are hurting from the loss of tourist dollars. We also saw more machine guns in one week that either one of us has seen in the rest of our lives.
Our first exposure to the canyons was in Creel. As we walked into a small restaurant, a small group of three men in bullet proof vests armed with machine guns was walking out. When we took a tour the next day, we asked our tour guide about the men. He said that they were probably ranchers that were coming into town to buy supplies. This did not seem likely, but we didn't argue. Most people we talked to in town said that there was not much danger, and although tourism was down, there were still people coming into the canyons. We did see a lot of tourists in Creel, but saw no Americans there. We then took a bus down into the canyon to Batopilas.
It was deep in the canyon in Batopilas where we saw the youths with machine guns. In this same town, we walked 5 miles along a dirt road to the Lost Cathedral, where a 19-year-old girl unlocked the door and talked to us awhile. When we asked about the drug cartels, she said that the local people live with them in peace. They are just like any other business there. Her family made and sold them tacos. We then hired someone to drive us on the four-wheel-drive road from Batopilas to Urique in another canyon. We kept asking our driver about the prevalence of heavy arms in the canyons, but he was hesitant to talk about it. He said, "Listen, I see nothing, and I hear nothing, and this is how I get by."
Later we had the opportunity to learn more from someone who was willing to talk. He said that the situation was very bad, and that the presence of the cartels had essentially killed tourism in the area. We had already noticed this. In every town we visited down in the canyons, there was no one in the restaurants. We were the only ones staying in a hotel. There is business going on, but the local people are not benefiting from it, other than a few youths who are providing "security."
In one town we saw a group of men riding in the back of a huge four-wheel-drive truck, and who were all in body armor and carrying the requisite machine guns, They stopped at someone's house, went in, and came out carrying two large bundles that they threw in the back of the truck before driving off. Please excuse me for not capturing all this on camera. It was not until we came back out of the canyon at Bahuichivo that we saw our first police, and they too were wearing body armor and toting machine guns.
If you ride El Chepe from one train terminus to the other, you would have no clue that any of this is happening. I never felt like I was in danger, but it gave me an uneasy feeling to be around so many that are heavily armed.
While we were there, a friend of mine who has family connections in Mexico sent me a message on Facebook. She said, "Be careful down there. Although they have recaptured El Chapo (the head of the Sinoloa cartel)." Based on what I've seen, I think that there will be plenty who can take his place.