After two days in the pueblo of Creel, high along the Sierra Madre Occidental, I was itching to drop deep into the Copper Canyon to explore Mexico's most remote and breathtaking backlands. Fortunately, that night as I pried patrons of a Creel cantina for information on how to best reach Batopilas, a tiny pueblito on the canyon's floor, I met a young man whom I will call Juan.
"Me and my friend have a rental car," Juan said. "Ride with us to Batopilas." I did.
Juan, 24, had the body of a skinny rock star, with a long face and eyes big and glazed, lids at half mast. His black hair tangled well past his ears. A student at New York's Hunter college, he studied filmmaking. His friend, whom I will call Pablo, 27, was lean and clean-cut. Black sideburns bookended his flawless face. Brown eyes under black brows. Hair cut tight on the sides, a little longer on top. He carried a degree in business but hadn't decided on a line of work. Said he would rather travel. The only things that Juan and Pablo seemed to have in common were a hometown in Portugal and a fondness for smoking large joints laced with Marlboro tobacco.
When we set out the next morning, thunderheads roared across the sierra. Roadside, Tarahumara Indian ( or Raramuri) men hauled fallen pine trees with chained horses while Mexican farmers coaxed oxen to drag plows across steep cropland. After a few hours, we came to our first view of the chasm: 2,300 meters deep, stretching countless kilometers to the horizon, joining other, equally astounding canyons, and ultimately leaving the world wonderfully cracked.
The entire region covers more than 56,000 square miles with a vast and essentially untouched network of canyons -- four of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon. We stood in silence for a long time, marveling at a beauty that transcended the greatest sum of what all our senses could conjure. But as we plunged deeper, I reminded myself that all things beautiful harbor dark secrets: We were entering one of the most prolific marijuana and opium growing regions on the planet.
Half a day later, we reached Batopilas, a town five kilometers long and two blocks wide. Most of the Tarahumara Indians who live in Batopilas and beyond have distanced themselves socially and geographically from Mexican society. Living in caves and log cabins and living off beans and corn, approximately 60,000 Tarahumara Indians exist in the surrounding wilderness. The Tarahumara men and women we encountered were stoic, shy, borderline unapproachable, and vastly outnumbered by Mexicans who were proud, often gregarious, and always helpful. For the past two decades, entire Tarahumara families have been enslaved by Mexican narcotraficantes who have taken over remote canyons and forced the Indians to grow marijuana and opium poppies. Those who don't comply are often killed. In the mid-1990s, an average of one dozen Indians per month were reported murdered. Out-of-towners, too, felt the drug pushers' wrath during that time, as when traficantes pistol-whipped and raped a group of American naturalists who had stumbled upon a field of poppies.
After dinner downtown, Juan and Pablo asked a group of Mexican teenagers where they could score a bag of weed. One of the kids rushed off, promising to return with a sack. These young men were marijuaneros, the workers who harvest pot plants each fall. They fear only the militantes, the government soldiers who fly into the territory to hack and burn all the patches of marijuana and poppies they can find. They have no fear of the local police, however, who routinely battle for the Batopilas beat, where the pay off is handsome. Most policemen drive new trucks, and come fall harvest are lavished with denim, leather, booze, and women -- so long as they turn a blind eye to drug operations. There's not much work outside of the drug economy, one of the marijuaneros explained, adding that pot not only proves profitable for dealers, workers, and cops, but that the entire community benefits as the drugs lords pump cash into Batopilas's schools and health clinic.
I couldn't help but think about my own country's so-called War on Drugs and how if pot and poppy production was somehow brought to a screeching halt here in the Sierra Madre that these teenagers would be out of work and Batopilas's sickly would suffer, along with its schoolchildren. But the bigger itch nagging me was this: How can the United States expect the production of drugs to drop when the addictions and habits of its own citizens continue to create a ravenous market? When the United State nods approvingly as the Mexican government douses large areas of the Sierra Madre with herbicide, it's doing nothing about reducing demand. Meanwhile, the August 5, 2000 issue of Mexico's Reforma newspaper reported that a 12-year-old Tarahumara girl died after being accidentally dusted by a government fly-by, and that others of her village suffered temporary blindness and skin rashes. The equation, therefore, becomes so inextricably convoluted that the perhaps the most sensible answer rests well outside of the supply-and-demand dead end: legalize it, regulate it, and tax it to the moon, just like alcohol and tobacco.
After an hour of waiting for the marijuaneros to try and find somebody with a bag for sale, Pablo, Juan, and I called it a night. There was no shortage of irony in the fact that they couldn't score a bag in Mexico's most prolific pot-growing region. But on our walk back to the hotel, a young Batopilan offered us a half-ounce bag of weed for 100 pesos (about $10 US), and in less than 60 seconds the deal was done.
After a few more days of exploration we cut out for Durango, a 15-hour drive from Batopilas. Some where along the way, federal drug judiciales manning a highway checkpoint flagged us down, waving us roadside for inspection. I had spotted the checkpoint a quarter of a mile off and ordered my friends, "Hide that pot like our lives depend on it."
While agents searched the car, the man in charge told me to grab my bag and follow him into a simple concrete building. A German shepherd sniff dog chained to the wall eyed me as I entered. Immediately, the agent -- stern, confident, experienced -- rummaged through my duffel, flipped through my wallet and books, and asked for my papers. I showed him my passport and tourist permit, each up-to-date. When he asked my profession, I told him I was a journalist (which cut into his confidence a bit), but that my travels in his country were more vacation than work. He asked how long I had known Pablo and Juan (four days), why I was driving their rental car (because they were tired), and if we had picked up any mota on our trip through the sierra. "I don't smoke mota," I told him, truthfully. Then I lied: "And neither do they." He thanked me for my time and told me to go outside and send in one of my friends. With discretion mine, I skipped Juan, who looked like a slightly nervous version of Jim Morrison coming off a bad acid trip, and approached Pablo and said, "The man inside wants to talk to you." The man inside gave Pablo the same drill. And like I had done, Pablo told the truth all the way up to the point where only an undiscovered lie would keep us out of a Mexican prison.
We were free to go. Fortunately, the big sharp-nosed German shepherd chained to the building was never allowed anywhere near the bulge in the crotch of Juan's pants.