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 in Mexico's vast northern canyons, Gonzalez has been waiting for help since President Felipe Calderon said in December that he had assessed the drought's damage and would deliver aid. Meanwhile, rumors circulated two weeks ago that some members of the indigenous group were committing suicide for lack of food.
The first major batch of federal help just 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 for weeks.
"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. However, a trip to the region late last week 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. "There wasn't a federal program until now, until the president came. We still need to know how much."
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.
Even with the arrival of trucks and planes of supplies, it's still difficult to reach people in need, many of whom live in settlements in the canyons that are only accessible by foot or horse.
State officials say they've been distributing help since November and still have only reached half of the 70,000 needy families.
"There are thousands of communities. We can't get them everything they need because there are not enough resources to blanket the Sierra," Velasquez said. "There are so many, we can't reach all of them."
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 as well as embarrassment when reminded how poorly they live.
For a long time, malnutrition has been a threat for these Sierra Madre inhabitants. The Health Department said in a 2009 document that 95 out of 1000 Tarahumara children younger than 5 died mostly because of anemia, drinking contaminated water or other malnutrition-related diseases.
The Tarahumara's misfortunes have been especially bitter because they have long been a symbol of strength and self-reliance, serving as an inspiration for ultra-marathoners because they're known for running up to 60 miles at a time through the mountains of their homeland in little more than sandals.
The outpouring of concern started when a council secretary in the Chihuahua town of Carichi told a local television channel Jan. 15 that some Tarahumara were jumping off cliffs because they were desperate that they couldn't feed their families.
The state government of Chihuahua, the Mexican Red Cross and other officials said the reports were false.
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. Calderon's government then responded Jan. 18 that the Social Development Department was starting to send more food packages to state-run discount stores and Indian shelters.
It wasn't until Jan. 24, when the department began to distribute boxes with 10 kilos of food each in 107 shelters in the region. Deputy Secretary Luis Mejia told The Associated Press that sending the food aid took some time because officials started to plan the logistics only after Mexico declared an emergency in Sierra Madre towns Jan. 3.
"This is a procedure that is based on the state of emergency the government declares," he said. "We can only follow orders."
The federal government responded to the AP in a statement that Calderon delivered food in his first visit two months ago but "the support has intensified since January, incorporating the army and the navy."
Everyone from Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard to political parties, running groups and everyday people have organized relief efforts for the Tarahumara, who are also known as Raramuris.
Tomas Ruiz, representative of the board of governors in Tarahumara regions, said the aid is only arriving to the larger and more accessible villages of the Sierra Madre so officials can publicize the good deeds.
"We need the food, but it is not the solution to what we want," Ruiz said. "What we want is a policy that really helps us come out of poverty, marginalization, isolation."
The extreme dry conditions has afflicted farmers and ranchers in most of northern Mexico, which has declared an emergency for seven states because of the drought.
Health officials did not respond to requests for statistics and other details about malnutrition cases since the drought started. Rev. Guadalupe Gasca, a Jesuit priest who oversees a clinic in the mountain town of Creel, recently told the AP that his clinic saw 250 Tarahumara children with malnutrition, including a 3-year-old girl who died.
Guadalupe Bustillos, 45, said some days the only nourishment for her and her husband has been a glass of corn mush called "pinole." When she saw an aid truck pull over last week, she was able to get a garage bag full of water, rice, tuna and used clothes from Topos.
The crisis started a year ago when a severe cold snap killed their crops. The Tarahumara saw less than half of the normal rainfall over the summer, and their October crops yielded no maize, potatoes or beans.
Besides the state efforts, the Red Cross boosted food aid to that region from the five tons they normally deliver during the winter to 300 tons of canned food arriving in train cars in the past weeks.
Velasquez has received the food aid in the town of Guachochi, called the center of the Sierra Tarahumara, where state aid trucks sporadically arrive after hours of navigating narrow tracks of curvy mountain roads. He also coordinates the food relief efforts with the navy and private groups.
Velasquez said 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.
On a recent day, dozens of indigenous mulled around the patio of a house in Laguna de Aboreachi where the trailer parked with the food. Mothers breast-fed babies fastened to their bodies with hand-woven shawls while waiting in line to get packages of food and water bottles.
The lake of Aboreachi, where some residents used to fish for trout, is now a muddy pit. The lumber yard that used to employ indigenous residents has closed.
Macario Gomez, transportation director of the regional Mexican Red Cross, said he has seen a mobilization on behalf of the state of Chihuahua like no other year with more than 1,000 metric tons of food delivered.
"The Sierra is the Achilles' heel of the state government," Gomez said.
Even with the aid, Gomez said, he is seeing increasingly more Indians walking five to six hours only to get some grain and water. He said some have to leave with their hands empty.