By Luis Chaparro.

The Raramuri Indians of Chihuahua state, renowned for their ability to cover long distances on foot, are being used by Mexican drug traffickers to smuggle narcotics into the United States.

Attorneys, social workers and members of the Raramuri community interviewed by Efe said recruiting the indigenous youth was the brainchild of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted fugitive.

Ken del Valle, a defense lawyer in El Paso, Texas, said that over the past four years he has counseled "dozens" of Raramuris, also known as Tarahumaras, who were arrested for trying to smuggle drugs across the border from Ciudad Juarez.

The Raramuris inhabit communities in the Sierra Tarahumara region of Chihuahua, an impoverished area of Mexico where severe droughts in recent decades have brought hunger and despair.

"When young people go to cities or towns to look for work they recruit them there. They (the drug traffickers) ride around in an SUV" looking to find people willing to carry a marijuana-filled backpack across the border, Del Valle said, relating what he has heard from his clients.

"Then they take them with a guide. They take them close to where the drugs are and leave them at the border, each one with about 10 kilos (22 pounds)," the attorney said.

The guide, he added, carries a cellphone and is the one who has all the contact numbers for delivering the drugs in the United States. "They walk at night and rest during the day," Del Valle said.

But most Tarahumaras are ignorant of a key aspect of the law: "If they catch a group and each one has 10 or 20 kilos of marijuana, it's a conspiracy for the total (amount), that is for 100 or 200 kilos and all are responsible for the 100 or 200 kilos," the attorney said.

Randall Gingrich, a U.S. social worker who has lived for more than 20 years in the Sierra Tarahumara, said drug-trafficking gangs are "ubiquitous" in the region.

"The situation has deteriorated greatly over the past 20 years. I've seen the change in the way the drug gangs behave toward the Tarahumaras," he said by phone.

"They offer them large amounts of money that they're never going to obtain (by other means), but the problem is that the risk is high and sometimes they don't even pay them," Gingrich said.

Stories that have spread by word of mouth in the Sierra Tarahumara have aroused suspicion and apprehension among some members of the Raramuri community.

For 17-year-old Bernardino, who refused to give his surname, fear carries more weight than the lure of easy money and the desire to alleviate grinding poverty.

"I haven't smuggled because if you make a mistake they kill you," he said outside a church in Colonia Tarahumara, a poor district founded 16 years ago on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, a hard-scrabble city wracked in recent years by drug-related violence.

Bernardino, who arrived at the border a few weeks ago looking for construction work, and teenagers like him are regarded by drug cartels as fresh meat.

Some 150 Raramuri families eke out a living in Colonia Tarahumara, where most men work in construction while the women - typically dressed in multi-colored skirts and shawls - make handicrafts and beg for money. EFE