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Years into a viscous and seemingly intractable drug war, Mexico is now struggling with another powerful opponent - the weather. Government officials say more than half of Mexico's 31 states are baking in Mexico's worst drought in decades. In some areas, farmers haven't been able to harvest crops for two years in a row. The Mexican federal government is pledging more than $2 billion to fight the crisis. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Here in the Central Mexican state of Zacatecas, 76-year-old Genaro Rodarte Huizar is riding his donkey along a dry river bed. On his left is a dried out pasture. On his right is what used to be a corn field, now it's just long furrows of gray, dusty dirt. Rodarte says for the last two years the crops that he's planted here have failed.
GENARO RODARTE: (Spanish language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: This year, the crops didn't grow, he says, and last year they didn't grow either. Normally, Rodarte plants beans and corn to feed his family and oats to sell.
RODARTE: (Spanish language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: He says he hasn't harvested anything because the land is too dry and there's no water.
This is an arid part of Mexico, but normally there's a rainy season between June and September. Locals grow crops during the summer season. They also tend cattle on the scrubby rolling hills dotted with cacti. Rodarte has lived here all his life and he says this is the worst drought he's ever seen.
RODARTE: (Spanish language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Now most people are leaving, he says, to the cities, to the coasts where it rains, or to the United States. That's where the people are going to work. And those who are abroad in the U.S. are the ones who are sustaining the families here. They send us a little bit of money.
This drought is hitting a broad swath of central, northwestern and northern Mexico. Sugar exports are expected to drop 40 percent this year. And one top military official says the lack of rain is even hurting marijuana production in Durango. And many farmers have been forced to sell off their livestock as pastures and watering holes dry up.
President Felipe Calderon has pledged billions of dollars in assistance to the hardest hit states, and he's vowed that no one is going to starve because of the crisis. Food aid shipments are already being sent by helicopter and trucks to the Tarahumara Indians in remote parts of Chihuahua.
Here in Zacatecas, the mayor of the vast municipality of Valparaiso, Jorge Torres Mercado, says he's still waiting for federal assistance to arrive.
JORGE TORRES MERCADO: (Spanish language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Right now, my problem is food and drinking water, Mayor Torres says. Starting last year we've been sending water in trucks up to 40 miles over dirt roads to remote communities. He says, currently, he only has two trucks and the demand for trucked-water is growing every day. Torres hopes the federal assistance will include tanker trucks. What have been arriving to his office recently, are desperate campesinos who've abandoned their land and decided to move into the center of town.
MERCADO: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: They arrive here, Torres says in frustration. In these extremely poor communities the families have five, six, seven, eight kids. They come and ask for help. He says these families arrive and they don't have a place to stay, they don't have food, they don't have clothes for their children. Torres says Mexico needs to invest in digging wells and building reservoirs so these people can stay on their land.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEAUBIEN: In the hills overlooking the center of Valparaiso, workers are digging a trench for a new water pipe. Currently residents get water either by buying it in town and hauling it up here or from the municipal water truck that comes every eight days. The pipe will be connected to a new bore-hole more than 300 feet deep.
Jose Pasillas, who spent much of his life in the United States, is helping to dig the trench for the pipes. Pasillas says this system will give people here drinking water, but they're still completely dependent on rain for their crops.
JOSE PASILLAS: Like right now, you can see these clouds out here and people get excited from seeing them. And you can hear the thunder, you know, away. But it's just hope, you know. It's just hope that it rains and that's it.
BEAUBIEN: The Mexican government is also hoping for rain. Officials say new wells and water trucks can help in the short term, but if the rains fail for a third straight year it could provoke a social crisis across much of the country.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.