Conquering one of the twin volcanoes that overlook the Valley of Mexico has been an attractive challenge since at least the Cortes expedition in 1519. But in this high-crime age of El Narco, there are dangers on the mountainside that have nothing to do with oxygen depletion, muscle fatigue or accidental falls.
Before she climbed Iztaccihuatl for the first time in 2003, Elena Amezcua had to take a course in high-altitude mountain climbing, and embark on a six-month conditioning program. She bought special boots, walking sticks, thermal clothes. She studied the geography of the volcano and the area around it.
Such preparations are vital for handling the altitude -- more than 5,000 meters or 16,000 feet -- as well as the climate changes and the muscle fatigue that are unavoidable during the two-day trek up the third tallest mountain in Mexico.
This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.
Today, Elena has dozens of ascents under her belt, every one of which she has completed following all the safety rules to the letter.
But this year she faced another challenge -- an assault by criminals working the mountainside.
In fact, last July masked men attacked two different mountain-climbing groups that were resting in two shelters placed for that purpose at the 4,800-meter level. The shelters, named Ayoloco and De los Cien, are located along a common route considered one of the most secure on the mountain. Neither had ever been attacked.
But the July attack was not the first on the slopes of the volcano. Nine years earlier, in 2006, a group of armed men attacked climbers along the route from the pueblo of San Rafael. One young man was killed when he tried to prevent the rape of one of the climbers.
Fear gripped the mountain then, and climbers abandoned that route. But the fear was not limited to climbers of Ixtaccihuatl. In 2011, a scouts group known as Guias de Mexico, consisting of 2,000 women and girls, suspended their outdoor activities, first in six states and then nationwide.
A year later, in July of 2012, 13 armed men raided a campsite in the El Colibri ecological park near Chalco east of Mexico City. Five women among the 90 campers were sexually abused. Among those arrested were two active police officers and a former soldier, according to prosecutors in the State of Mexico.
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Mountain climbers make for profitable targets, especially those, like Elena, who take all the proper safety precautions. They have on them boots worth 2,000 pesos, at least 4,000 pesos worth of wind- and rain-resistant clothing, sunglasses worth perhaps 2,000 pesos and often some very expensive photography equipment.
When they're robbed at gunpoint, they're not only out thousands of pesos, but also left unprotected halfway up a mountain.
Action Over Fear
After the July attack, the victims decided to take action instead of succumbing to fear.
Francisco Trad, an experienced climber, called for a demonstration last Aug. 1 right on Iztaccihuatl. Five thousand people showed up. Born of that event was the group Montañistas Unidos, which had two immediate plans of action. One was to demand better security on the mountain from authorities. The other was to rehabilitate the shelters, which the group called "a focus of crime."
The group's efforts resulted in the creation by the state government of the first "High Mountain Police Force," which began operations last Aug. 20 in the Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl National Park. It is comprised of 50 agents, each making 15,000 pesos per month, relatively high pay for police officers.
The agents were selected from nearby high-altitude areas, such as Amecameca. They not only had completed their police academy training, they also started special training by the Montañistas Unidos members themselves.
"The mountains are a microcosm of what's happening throughout the country."
The training was not informal. Montañistas Unidos has put together a program of mountain studies that includes geography, the history of mountain climbing, meteorology, rock climbing, the kinds of dangers encountered on a mountain, first aid, knot tying, using harnesses and making camp.
Also trained are rescue groups working the mountain, the idea being to coordinate their efforts with the mountain police. The training program will continue through February of 2016.
But it's not enough.
The group has also taken other precautions as it adapts to the reality of crime on high. None climb alone, they carry as little cash as possible on the way up, and they always leave word with somebody about any expedition they take so their whereabouts will be registered.
There is also an access control point in the Iztaccihuatl–Popocatepetl area known as Paso de Cortes, where visitors are required to register their time of ascent and expected time of descent.
All of the new measures help, but they aren't enough to secure the climbing trails. They don't directly go after the criminal attackers, or, for that matter, the illegal loggers that operate in the area.
The routes that start at the pueblo of San Rafael, known as Chalchoapan and Arista de la Luz, were abandoned after the 2006 attack and murder. Common criminals, organized crime and illegal loggers still have a strong presence there, according to Fernando Veytia, a spokesperson for Montañistas Unidos.
"It doesn't matter how you go around there -- car, motorcycle, alone, in a group," he says. "It's very dangerous."
A military presence is seen by many as the best solution to the problem. On the occasions that soldiers have deployed there, the routes became safer.
Eduardo Valiente, the State of Mexico public security commissioner, acknowledges the presence of illegal loggers in the San Rafael area, but lacks details. He has little information about organized crime's presence in the area, nor about the number of assaults that have occurred on the mountain. He says intelligence operations are in the works.
Meanwhile, mountain climbers such as Francisco Trad are confident that cooperation between citizens and the government can work. "The mountains are a microcosm of what's happening throughout the country," he says. "If we manage to clean up these tips of the world, we'll be setting an example for those below in terms of basic human behaviors such as respect for life, for women's bodies and for other people."
*This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.