The ongoing search for members of Mexico’s Yaqui Indigenous community, missing for well over a month, has become a rallying cry for activists pointing to the shocking number of disappearances in northern Sonora state.
On July 14, 10 people left the Yaqui community of Loma de Bácum in southern Sonora to drive a herd of cattle to a festival being held at the Agua Caliente Ranch, some 85 kilometers to the north.
They never made it. Nothing has been heard from them since.
In early August, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed authorities were searching for them. And on August 24, during a visit to Sonora, he acknowledged the toll that the Indigenous community was paying due to violence on its lands.
“The Yaqui governors have accepted the participation of the Defense Ministry, the Navy, the National Guard (on their lands). This will greatly help to guarantee peace,” he said during a speech. He also blamed a rise in violence in Sonora on an increase in fentanyl trafficking.
But for the Yaqui community, the answer went beyond drug trafficking interests. They claim this was the latest act in a systematic campaign to dislodge them from their lands or quell protests against a gas pipeline and mining concessions. Two well-known Yaqui leaders were killed in Sonora in May and June.
How much effort is being expended to find the missing is also in dispute. Media reports have spoken of a grandiose search operation involving up to 12 local and national government agencies, as well as drones and helicopters. Sonora's Attorney General’s Office stated that personal protection and psychological support had been offered to the relatives of the missing men from the outset.
But Guadalupe Flores Maldonado, a member of the Yaqui guard in Loma de Bácum, told a very different story.
“Until now, no official, nobody from the state or federal government has come here to offer their help. And they haven’t sent the National Guard, the Marines, the Defense Ministry, the police or investigators who are meant to be helping,” she told Animal Político in early August.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Yaqui are just one facet of Sonora’s tragedy. Since 2015, over 4,000 people have disappeared in the state, according to figures from authorities and victims’ associations.
“These cases are often not declared ... but we have observed an average of four people a day reported as disappeared,” Manuel Emilio Hoyos, director of the Sonora Observatory for Security, told El Sol de Hermosillo, a local newspaper.
The disappearances cut across social divides. In 2021, there has been a marked increase in cases involving women. InSight Crime found that 41 women were reported as having disappeared between January and April 2021, as opposed to 82 cases declared in all of 2020.
Migrants trying to reach the United States border are also at risk. While there are no reliable numbers about such disappearances, over 250 have been reported missing in northern Mexico since March 2020, including Sonora.
Sonora is not even the worst-affected part of Mexico, ranking fifth among the states with the most disappearances since 2019.
Sonora’s wave of disappearances are the result of a complex web of factors: criminal groups controlling vast stretches of land through which they prepare, package and transport drugs, contraband and migrants; unmotivated, ill-prepared, corrupt or overwhelmed local authorities who routinely ignore warning signs and do not give disappearance cases high priority; and large, economic interests that may intersect with criminal interests.
The result is almost complete impunity. Only cases out of the ordinary seem to get much attention from the press and, by extension, authorities. For example, last April, 30 Mexican Marines were arrested for their role in several forced disappearances in 2014. The most recent case of the missing Yaqui members is another. But more is needed.
Civil society organizations working to find the missing are being targeted.
On August 24, the same day López Obrador visited Sonora, dozens of activists gathered in Mexico City for a protest and issued a statement calling for greater protection from the state. One of those being commemorated was Aranza Ramos, a 28-year-old woman from Sonora who had joined search parties organized by Madres Buscadoras (Searching Mothers) to find her husband, missing since December 2020. She participated in uncovering mass graves and reportedly received several threats before being gunned down in July at her home in Guaymas, Sonora.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have both called on the government to investigate Ramos’ death and protect her family.
Meanwhile, the Ramos family, as well as the Yaqui community, continue to wait for answers.