By Vanessa García Navarro, Avispa Midia
On Wednesday, July 14, the Yaqui village of Loma de Bácum—one of the eight towns that make up the Yaqui Nation in Sonora, Mexico—reported the disappearance of several community members. Uncertainty has persisted since then, as family members of the victims do not know what condition they could be in.
The public complaint released by the community mentions the names of seven people: Martín Hurtado Flores, Braulio Pérez Sol, Eladio Molina Zavala, Juan Justino Galaviz Cruz, Fabian Sombra Miranda, Leocadio Galaviz Cruz, and Fabian Valencia Romero, ranging in age from 27 to 66. However, Artemio Arballo Canizalez, Benjamín Portela Peralta, and Gustavo Acosta Hurtado were reported missing that same day, totalling 10 Indigenous people from the community who are currently missing.
Seven of them were last seen while getting ready to bring cattle to a nearby town for a celebration. The community found out about the disappearances on the day they occurred, so the local Traditional Guard (a Yaqui institution responsible for community defense) decided to proceed with caution before taking action. After seeing that the missing people hadn’t returned the following day, the Guard and several volunteers headed into the mountains in four pickup trucks to search for them. Unfortunately, they only found “scattered luggage belonging to three of them, a rope, and a burned cow,” as the families stated in the public report.
Another resident of the town, who for his safety preferred to identify himself only as Felipe, explained the circumstances surrounding the disappearances and the dangerous situation they are in. The people there distrust the state as much as they distrust the narco presence in the region—it’s often difficult to tell one from the other. “They raised cattle. They were part of a ranch called Agua Caliente. They were going to move some cattle for the traditional festival in a neighboring town called Bataconsica, which is five kilometers from our town, called Loma de Bácum,” said Felipe.
They were intercepted once they were moving the cattle. “Since we had already lived through the experience of a compa and her husband being taken, we thought it was the PEI (Policía Estatal Investigadora, the State Investigative Police), the government. And then a little while ago, we learned it was organized crime. But everyone knows that when we’re involved in a struggle, organized crime and the government, the state police, are all in collusion. They all have the same goal, to harass those in struggle so as to get what they want,” he added, referring to the resistance the community has mounted against a gas pipeline that the US-based company Sempra Energy seeks to build across their territory, through its Mexican subsidiary IEnova.
By not allowing the pipeline to be built a mere 300 meters from their houses, Loma de Bácum has caused problems for the transnational company. Above all, the residents fear for their lives due to the risks the pipeline brings with it. Of the eight Yaqui towns in the region, Loma de Bácum was the only one not to accept the project, and for this they have been attacked several times by armed groups. Meanwhile, Sempra has the backing of the Mexican government.
Now, a long way from a truce in the process of defending their lives and land, the Yaqui village faces a new threat. Loma de Bácum’s spokeswoman, Guadalupe Flores Maldonado, pointed out recently that the state government has made room for more transnational companies to invade the Indigenous territory by granting some 12 mining concessions. The companies plan to extract gold, with no care for the collateral damage they will do to the area’s inhabitants and ecological equilibrium.
Two weeks have passed since the disappearances and Felipe maintains that, as of now, “they haven’t appeared, nor has anyone called about a ransom or anything. We’re at square one; we don’t know anything.”
Armed violence against Loma de Bácum is not without precedent. In October 2016, a group made up of police and members of neighboring communities who had accepted the pipeline staged an armed attack against the town in order to impose a new municipal authority that would approve the project. The attack left one dead, Cruz Buitimea Piña, from the side of the attackers. Days later the police arrested Fidencio Aldama, a member of Loma de Bácum’s Traditional Guard, accused of homicide with no evidence. After a trial filled with irregularities, he was sentenced to 15 and a half years in prison.
The Yaqui community predicts that the mining companies, allied with other actors, will use violence to intimidate them. In the past two weeks, 15 residents of the town have gone missing. While five of them returned home (three women and two children), ten are yet to be found. These “disappearances” share a common element: they don’t appear to be common kidnappings, that is, no one has demanded a ransom nor initiated negotiations for their return. The number of victims is increasing and, as Guadalupe Flores suspects, “perhaps the intention is to frighten and chase off the residents to leave the path free for the multinational corporations.” For the moment, the townspeople have declared themselves ready to defend their territory through to the ultimate consequences. Family members of the disappeared continue to demand justice. They have filed a report with the prosecutor’s office, holding onto the hope of finding their relatives alive but aware that this becomes less likely with each passing day.