Mexican town is an example of an innocent casualty of the war on drugs.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BABORIGAME, Mexico -- In Latin America's war against drugs, the armies win some battles. Drug traffickers win others. But the most consistent losers are Indian families like those who live in this remote area of the Sierra Madre mountains.

What happened last October in this Indian village of mud and wood huts is being held up as an example of how badly things can go wrong. Mexican soldiers stormed the village in a "marijuana raid," terrorizing the inhabitants, destroying their homes and killing their livestock.

"They destroyed everything they had," said Sister Leovy Lopez Camacho, who has worked in the parish at Baborigame for 12 years. "They left the people with nothing except fear."

An investigation completed late last year by Chihuahua officials and representatives from human rights groups showed all that had been growing around the destroyed houses of Baborigame was beans, corn and peach trees.

The military acknowledges that the soldiers' behavior was excessive and says that individuals will be punished.

The mistake was part of the ugly reality of the war on drugs, say the soldiers, who were looking for a suspect. Baborigame is located in Chihuahua, a border state that serves as a major transit point for drugs en route to the United States. The state also contains the Sierra Madre mountain range, whose slopes are dotted with marijuana fields.

Flaw in drug strategy

Throughout Mexico, people are using the Baborigame raid as an example of the key flaw in the strategy to stem the flow of drugs through Latin America: Too much power is given to military and police forces, who rob and abuse Indian residents as much as the narcotics traffickers do.

While the extreme violence such as the October attack is rare, many of the Indians say lesser forms of abuse are common.

"The Mexican military routinely abuses the rights of indigenous residents under the pretext that they are fighting a war against drugs," says Chihuahua Bishop Juan Sandoval Iniguez.

Last year, the United States gave Mexico about $48 million to help the country combat drug trafficking. More than half the aid came in the form of military supplies and technical assistance to federal police agents.

"Over the last 12 years, the anti-drug policies have only focused on punishing farmers through police actions without addressing the problem of the extreme poverty these farmers endure," said Ricardo Soberon of the Andean Commission of Jurists in Lima, Peru.

One State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said the United States recognizes the risk of corruption among Latin police officers and soldiers because many are underpaid.

But, he added, "Corruption is not a show-stopper. It is a problem and it is something that has to be dealt with. But despite corruption, it is possible to do a great deal."

The official said the United States spends much more money trying to boost the economies of Latin American countries, trying to improve the economic and living conditions of most of their citizens.

The benefits described by the official have yet to be enjoyed by the hundreds of Tepehuan Indian families that live around

Baborigame.

No water, electricity

Their homes have no running water or electricity. The only hospital is 12-hours away by truck. And food is scarce because the rocky land does not yield abundant crops. Many Tepehuanes do not read or write, and speak only in their indigenous dialect.

Human rights officials say the Indians extreme poverty and isolation leave them open for extortion and abuse from soldiers as well as drug traffickers.

On one side, the farmers say they suffer frequent harassment from the military. Soldiers demand food without payment, search homes night or day and stop farmers along the dirt roads and search them for weapons or drugs.

And on the other side, the farmers say drug traffickers threaten to kill them unless they use parcels of their land to grow marijuana or store shipments of cocaine.

Pay from the traffickers is often much more than the farmers could make if they used their land to grow beans and corn, so many of them go along.

And the risk of arrest is negligible because many of the soldiers are bribed by the traffickers to turn their eyes when they pass fields of marijuana.

"The army protects the traffickers more than the farmers," said Julio Morales, head of the government's human rights office in Parral, a city north of Baborigame.

The Tepehuanes of Baborigame said the first soldiers began bursting into their homes a little after dawn Oct. 26, about a week after an army officer had been gunned down in a marijuana field. His colleagues believed the assailant was a Tepehuan who was standing guard over the crop.

Torture victim

"The soldiers asked me if I knew where [the alleged assassin] was hiding," said Isidro Chaparro, 27, who was in his house along with a handful of friends. "I told them I had not seen him and that he had never been to my house. But they grabbed my head and squeezed it with their thumbs."

The Tepehuanes said that the men were rounded up and taken to the school house where they were beaten for not telling the soldiers where the wanted man was. Women were held in a separate building.

The soldiers -- at least 30, according to the Tepehuanes -- set fire to the homes of eight families who are related to the alleged assailant.

"One man spoke no Spanish, so he didn't understand their questions," said Manuel Chaparro, Isidro Chaparro's father. "They kept beating him and beating him, and he didn't even know what they were saying."

But the story didn't end there.

A month later, the Tepehuanes came together as they never had before and demanded justice.

In a public hearing before human rights workers and military officials, about 30 people testified about the attack, many of them still suffering from its effects.

Barely able to talk, a battered Alejandro Quinones Carrillo said in a raspy whisper: "The tortures on the people are very sad and you are here to help us, aren't you? Because this kind of abuse cannot continue."

Since the investigations into the rampage at Baborigame, Gen. Antonio Riviello Bazan, Mexico's defense secretary, has acknowledged that the soldiers acted "excessively" and promised that the lieutenant in command of the unit, Pedro Pavon Fernandez, will be tried on criminal charges in a military court. Charges have also been pressed against at least a dozen other soldiers.

During the first weekend of December, the army returned to Baborigame, delivering relief supplies and 1 million pesos, or about $320, to the families whose homes they had destroyed.

"The assistance is only a small gift," said Gen. Javier del Real, as he delivered the goods. "We know that this is a region with many needs and we want you to know that the soldiers are with you."

First apology

The Tepehuan said it was the first time they had ever received an apology from the army.

"One of the reasons the army was forced to admit their actions was that the indigenous people have never come together in such a united way," said Sister Leovy.

"And in the past, the army has always investigated its own actions. This time, many different groups looked into the incident, and the army simply could not make up enough excuses for what happened."

Sister Leovy said, "The soldiers are being very nice and respectful to the people right now. But we all wonder how long this respect will last."

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