Starvation, Isolation Killing Children of Mexico Indians : Famine: Officials are at odds over cause and numbers, as poverty-stricken young Tarahumara are hard hit.


A month before Guillermina Lirio died, her parents knocked on the door of the Indian boarding school, the only place they knew to seek help in this village high in the mountains of northern Mexico.

The 1-year-old was losing weight rapidly. With two older children to feed and almost no corn from this autumn's harvest, the Tarahumara Indian family had little to eat. The hungry baby cried constantly.

Maria Elena Guerra, a 22-year-old psychology student volunteering at the school, tried that afternoon and night to nourish the little girl with suero , a concentrated liquid nutrient, from the limited medical supplies.

When Guillermina was not better the following morning, the three adults carried her to the highway to hitchhike to the church-run Santa Teresita Clinic in Creel, 24 miles away. They waited all day by the road with the crying baby. They did not get a ride until nightfall.

At the clinic, for 27 days, Guillermina received suero with antibiotics, and the nurses tried to give her milk. She died Sept. 11 of gastrointestinal disease, infections and severe malnutrition. That month, back in Rejogochi, a village of 25 families, there were three other deaths from starvation-related illnesses.

Guillermina was one of 20 children who died of diseases related to malnutrition in a two-month period at the Santa Teresita Clinic, said Sister Virginia Briones, head of pediatrics there.

Dozens of children at the clinic are in various stages of treatment for malnutrition, several of them in critical condition. This is the time of year when the Tarahumara usually still have food from their harvest. Briones fears that the problem will get worse as undernourished children are unable to fight off the usual winter illnesses of pneumonia and tuberculosis.

"In some places, blood is spilled with bullets," she said. "Here, my children's blood is being spilled with hunger."

The deaths have provoked a macabre argument--with federal officials on one side and medical missionaries and the opposition party state government of Chihuahua on the other--over how many children have died and how many of those deaths were really caused by starvation.

On one level, what is at stake is whether the federal government should declare the state a disaster area and provide relief funds. The deeper issue is the same one raised by the Jan. 1 Indian uprising in the southern state of Chiapas: How should a country aspiring to be a world economic power and ostensibly proud of its Indian heritage address the unremitting poverty of its native population of approximately 8 million?

Because of that poverty, the 60,000 Tarahumara are exceptionally vulnerable to Chihuahua's two-year drought, the worst in 40 years, according to a state government report. In Chihuahua, the state capital, the drought has meant bumper stickers urging people not to waste water. In the mountains, among the Tarahumara, it has meant hunger and death.

Some reports say more than 40 children have died since July. But because the Tarahumara live in remote villages scattered among the majestic canyons and wind-chiseled rock formations of the Sierra Madre, no one knows the exact toll. Many children die without ever seeing a doctor.

In addition, Briones said, malnutrition weakens children, making illnesses that would be routine in well-fed children fatal. Starvation may not be listed as the cause of death in such cases.

Those ambiguities have led to bitter arguments reminiscent of the United States' Vietnam-era obsession with body counts. Last month, Chihuahua Gov. Francisco Barrio angrily and publicly rebutted a federal report that only one child had starved to death.

The discussions have become all the more acrimonious because of a mystique surrounding the Tarahumara that gives them a higher profile than most Indian groups.

The Tarahumara are famed as long-distance runners, and their territory is a requisite stop on any political campaign trail. The women's long, pleated floral skirts and bright scarves and the men's simple cotton loincloths make for striking photographs.

People now call the Tarahumara retiring and peaceful, but they were once alternately allies and enemies of the Apaches.

The last significant Tarahumara uprising occurred in 1918. Since then, they have responded to outside aggression by fleeing farther into the mountains. They have been forced into areas that are at best marginal for growing corn, the mainstay of their diet, according to William L. Merrill, a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist. Since 1977, Merrill has studied the Tarahumara, particularly in Rejogochi, a collection of log homesteads scattered in a wide valley.

The growing season here is from mid-April to mid-October. The success of the crop depends almost entirely on rainfall, Merrill said.

This year, it did not rain.

"There was no harvest," said Felipe Ramirez, a 24-year-old native of Rejogochi who teaches first grade at the 35-student boarding school. He picked about 110 pounds of corn from his one-acre plot. Last year, the plot yielded 10 times as much, and the corn lasted only half the year, he said.

In the late 1970s, Merrill calculated, the average household harvest was 1,320 pounds, and even that often ran out before the next crop was ripe. Ramirez said he expects that he will be able to support his wife and 1-year-old daughter on the $110 a month that he earns teaching. But few others here have steady incomes.

Most villagers earn a little money by working at the communal sawmill, taking turns because there is not enough work to go around. They supplement that income by poaching wood from the nearby national forest, Ramirez said. Those who are able work in the fields in neighboring Sinaloa, a major farming state.

Villagers here insist that the problems this year are far worse than the normally precarious conditions in the Sierra Tarahumara, as the region is known.

But Alicia Perez, a 20-year-old nurse at the government clinic in her hometown of Basihuare, a predominantly non-Indian community six miles away, said she believes conditions were worse two years ago. That year, a plague destroyed the bean crop and the government clinic had not yet been built.

"We feel that there have been a lot of advances in the two years since the clinic was built," she said. "You are always going to find that in the Tarahumara region, people are very poor."

Because of the poverty, infant mortality rates among the Tarahumara are so high, according to a state government report, that women on average give birth to 10 children in the hope that half will survive.

Like the villagers, the state government, run by the center-right opposition National Action Party, insists that this year is exceptional. The state's dams are at only 16% of capacity, and more than one-third of the rain-fed crops were lost this season.

Gov. Barrio's request that the federal government declare the state a disaster area was denied, but Mexico City has sent help, promising $18 million in farm subsidies and $1.5 million for health care, in addition to 500 tons of food. Two pediatrics residents arrived last month at the Santa Teresita Clinic, courtesy of the government.

Privately, state officials say that is not enough and hint that the federal government has political motives for refusing more aid. But the reaction was similar when the Huicholes Indians in the Pacific coast states of Nayarit and Jalisco faced a famine two years ago. Aid came almost exclusively from private U.S. charities, while government officials said they were working on long-term solutions to poverty in the region.

Rain finally provided the real relief.

The examples of the Tarahumara and Huicholes support the point that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari made at his final "state of the nation" address earlier this month. In commenting on the rebels who took up arms in Chiapas, he said:

"If poverty alone causes uprisings, other regions of the country and a large part of humanity, living under similar or worse conditions, would be in a constant state of revolt. No, poverty in itself does not explain armed violence."

But if Mexicans no longer fear an uprising following the example of the Chiapas Indians, many remain profoundly disturbed by events here. Reviewing Salinas' address, opposition legislators said that "the current administration is concluding in the midst of misery, as faithfully attested by what is occurring in Chiapas and the Sierra Tarahumara."

On an individual level, Briones, a gregarious, energetic woman, was working at a hospital in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes a year ago when she felt called to become a missionary, perhaps in Africa. Instead, she spent six months in a Tarahumara village 10 hours from Creel by dirt roads and now runs a nursery for children suffering from the diseases she had expected to find in Africa.

One of those children was Julia Batista, a 2-year-old weighing barely 14 pounds whose bones were sharply defined through her wrinkled skin.

Briones carefully rocked the whimpering Julia in her arms as a nurse's aide changed her sheets.

"If a country is advancing," she said, "we should see it not only in 'state of the nation' addresses and trade treaties, but in deeds."

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