MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexicans are rushing aid to Tarahumara communities in the remote northern mountains after a local official announced — apparently falsely — that dozens of the Indians had killed themselves because they couldn't feed their children due to severe cold weather.
The Tarahumara have long been a symbol of fierce pride, strength and self-reliance in Mexico. They have served as an inspiration for ultra-marathoners, because the Tarahumara are known for running 50 and 60 miles at a time through the mountains of their homeland in little more than sandals.
The idea that such a proud people might be losing their spirit stung Mexicans into a flurry of drives to collect food and clothing to the Indians.
Mexico City resident Samuel Lopez showed up at an aid collection set up in the city's main plaza with an armful of rice, beans, crackers and canned tuna.
"We cannot leave them adrift like that," Lopez said as he dropped off his donations. "They are our brothers."
The aid effort sprang up spontaneously over the weekend, when a video was posted on social media sites showing a town official from Carichi, a town in Tarahumara Mountains of northern Chihuahua state, saying the Indians were being driven to despair and suicide after their crops failed because of a combination of severe cold and the worst drought in at least 70 years.
"The Indian women get sad after four or five days when they can't feed their children," Carichi council secretary Ramon Gardea says on the video. "They are so despairing that up through December, 50 men and women went to the mountain valleys ... and threw themselves into valleys. Others hung themselves."
Nobody denies there is a real food emergency in the incredibly rugged mountains, where the Tarahumara have long been so poor that they sometimes live in caves in the winter to take advantage of the earth's heat.
But other officials say they have heard no reports of a mass suicide.
Rafael Gonzalez, spokesman for the Mexican Red Cross, said "we consider this a food emergency." Last year, the Red Cross made two expeditions into the mountains to bring food, but this year there will be three, the latest delivery consisting of 270 metric tons of food and 5,000 blankets. The government says it has also sent millions of dollars in aid.
Gonzalez shares most Mexicans' respect for the Tarahumara, noting "these are people who walk five or six hours to get to aid deliveries." But he has not heard of a single report of any of the estimated 250,000 Tarahumara committing suicide because of famine.
Nor has the Rev. Guadalupe Gasca, a Jesuit priest whose oversees the Clinica Teresita in the Tarahumara mountain town of Creel, Chihuahua. The Indians, whose life is a constant struggle to wring food out of scraggly corn plots on steep mountain slopes, don't give up easily.
"We (Jesuits) have a history of almost 400 years working in this area, and we can say that in the Tarahumaras' world view, suicide is not an option."
But Gasca notes that in 2011, his clinic did treat 250 Tarahumara children for malnutrition, including 25 severe cases. One 3-year-old girl died of it.
Gasca also blames the food crisis on the drought and cold.
"There has always been hunger in these hills," Gasca said. "There have always been climate cycles, but these cycles are getting more frequent and more severe."
He notes that logging and deforestation in the once pine-covered mountains may play a role in the drought, and is working with others to promote reforestation.
Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte attacked the mass suicide rumors; in a press statement, his office called them "bad faith and alarmist." Gardea, who originally reported the suicides, did not answer calls Monday to the Carichi town office.
But some drew a lesson from the whole affair, even as they acknowledged the reports were false.
"It is important to help the Tarahumara," said Mexico City resident Elisa Jimenez, who showed up with food donations Monday. "They need our help always, not just now."