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Mexico: pipeline divides Yaqui communities and triggers wave of violence

  • The construction of a section of the Sonora gas pipeline in northern Mexico has resulted in confrontations between members of different Yaqui indigenous communities, the most recent one in May.
  • The confrontations have left two people dead, more than 10 injured, 11 burned vehicles, and a section of gas pipe uprooted from the ground.
  • Members of the Yaqui community in the town of Loma de Bácum made a legal request to suspend the construction of the Guaymas-El Oro section of the pipeline, and a court sided with them: the project cannot be resumed until all eight affected Yaqui communities approve it.

LOMA DE BÁCUM, Mexico — October 21, 2016, is a date that the Yaqui community in the town of Loma de Bácum will never forget. That’s when the community’s inhabitants, riven into two factions over the imminent construction of a gas pipeline planned to cross straight through their territory, turned on each other.

One part of the community saw the pipeline as a threat to the 20,000 members of the Yaqui indigenous group and the environment they depend on. The other part welcomed the pipeline as a source of development, and also because seven other Yaqui communities had already voiced their approval of it.

Hundreds of people took part in the conflict. By the end of the day, a group of armed people had attacked the Guardia Tradicional station where Loma de Bácum’s Yaqui authorities usually meet, and dozens of children had been caught in the middle of a violent exchange upon leaving school. One person was dead and 11 vehicles were torched.

The events have left deep scars in the community, and an uncertain path forward.

Captura de video de los primeros enfrentamientos tomadas el 21 de octubre de 2016 cuando empezó el conflicto. Crédito: La Marabunta Filmadora.
A still shot from a video captured Oct. 21, 2016, when the confrontation began. Image courtesy of La Marabunta Filmadora (“The Crowd Filmer”).

The root of the problem

When it’s finished, the Guaymas-El Oro gas pipeline will run 330 kilometers (205 miles), 18 kilometers (11 miles) of it through Yaqui land in Loma de Bácum. This pipeline, together with the 505-kilometer (314-mile) Guaymas-El Sásabe pipeline, are intended to form a larger project known as the Sonora pipeline. The entire project is being developed by Gasoducto de Aguaprieta, a branch of the Mexico City-based company IEnova, itself a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy.

Loma de Bácum is one of eight communities that form the Yaqui nation in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. The majority of the families in Loma de Bácum oppose the pipeline crossing their territory, according to the town’s Yaqui authorities consulted by Mongabay Latam. The authorities claim Gasoducto de Aguaprieta persuaded the majority of the Yaqui communities with payments of sums of money and the use of force by Sonoran authorities.

“From our viewpoint, we saw our territory being colonized by that industry, colonized by people outside of the Yaqui tribe,” said Yaqui lawyer Anabela Carlón, a leader in the movement to stop the pipeline.

In April 2016, the anti-pipeline faction made a legal request to stop the pipeline’s construction. The district judge in the city of Obregón sided with them, ordering that construction of the pipeline could not continue without the consent of all eight Yaqui communities.

After the judge’s decision, Loma de Bácum became a stone in the shoe of the other seven Yaqui communities, of the company constructing the pipeline, and of the government.

Captura de video del 21 de octubre de 2016. Autos recién quemados. Crédito: La Marabunta Filmadora.
A still shot from a video captured Oct. 21, 2016, of vehicles that have been burned. Image courtesy of La Marabunta Filmadora.

Mexico’s secretary of energy carried out a prior consultation with all eight Yaqui communities on Sept. 14, 2016, but the result was the same: seven communities accepted the construction of the pipeline, but Loma de Bácum did not. The town expressed its “decisive and categorical rejection of the construction and operation of the Guaymas-El Oro section of the Sonora pipeline, within the segment located in the territory corresponding to this town,” according to a statement published by the secretary’s office.

Imagen panorámica de Loma de Bacúm. En la parte inferior se observan los autos incendiados. Crédito: La Marabunta Filmadora.
A panorama of Loma de Bácum showing the burned vehicles. Image courtesy of La Marabunta Filmadora.

However, the lack of a unanimous favorable vote did not stop the government from giving the project a green light.

The dispute reached a head on Oct. 21, 2016. As the Yaqui in Loma de Bácum tell it, community members in favor of the pipeline, supported by people from the pro-pipeline Yaqui town of Loma de Guamúchil as well as outsiders (called Yoris) sent by the company and the government, tried to oust Loma de Bácum’s traditional Yaqui authorities in order to appoint others who favored the pipeline. In response, the anti-pipeline contingent rose up and denounced what they called an “attempted coup d’état.”

A conflict ensued that spun out around a local school. Children, upon leaving school for the day, found themselves surrounded by gunfire, hurled stones, and the complaints of the wounded. Several children and adults fainted in shock. The violence lasted about two hours before the Sonora police and the Mexican navy broke it up.

After the incidents that day, the state secretary of Sonora, Miguel Pompa Corella, told local media outlets that the Sonoran government was waiting for the Yaqui nation to resolve its conflicts so that the project could continue without setbacks, since, according to him, all the necessary permissions were in order.

Enduring scars

Some of the traces of the violent episode involving the Yaquis and Yoris can still be seen in the center of Loma de Bácum more than a year and a half later. Eleven burned vehicles remind residents and visitors of the carnage that took place.

Martín Valencia con Higinio Ochoa señalando los 11 autos quemados durante el conflicto violento del 21 de octubre de 2016. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
Martín Valencia and Higinio Ochoa point out the 11 vehicles that were burned during the violent conflict on Oct. 21, 2016. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes for Mongabay Latam.

The twisted remains of the vehicles will stay where they are because residents opposed to the pipeline consider them a symbol of an achievement. “This is going to stay here because it serves as a warning for those who want to invade: think twice,” said resident Higinio Ochoa Vega.

Less visible remnants of the incident are the memories of the children and their teachers caught up in the violence. Some children have returned to school, but others have not wanted to. It’s the same with the teachers.

“They had never seen anything like it,” said Martín Valencia Cruz, chief of Loma de Bácum’s Yaqui authority. That makes sense, because nothing like it had ever happened in the community before.

One person died from a .22-caliber gunshot wound to the chest: Cruz Buitimea Piñas, who was part of the group defending the construction of the pipeline. Fidencio Valencia, a Yaqui volunteer fireman who was assisting the Guardia Tradicional that day, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder, even though he was armed with a .45-caliber weapon, according to Loma de Bácum’s traditional authorities.

Martín Valencia, the cousin of the victim, Buitimea, mourns his cousin’s death, but says the worst part of the ordeal is that children were placed in the middle of a conflict between hundreds of adults. He and many other pipeline opponents claim the pro-pipeline faction did so deliberately.

Captura de video del 21 de octubre de 2016 cuando llegaron las fuerzas del orden a intervenir. Crédito: La Marabunta Filmadora.
A still shot from a video captured Oct. 21, 2016, when authorities arrived to intervene. Image courtesy of La Marabunta Filmadora.

“It was very serious for us to have used children from the community as human shields; that was very terrible and that is something that isn’t forgiven here,” Valencia said. “They attacked sacred things.”

The spokesperson for the seven Yaqui communities in favor of the pipeline, Tomás Rojo Valencia, told media outlets the day after the conflict that they hoped for a resolution from the government, since, according to him, the groups he represents were not armed during the conflict.

Uprooting the pipeline

Five months after the confrontation, the Mexican Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Sonora, first in February 2017 and then in March 2017, to “discuss” the right to prior consultation that the Yaqui communities have. “The delegation from the UN emphasized the right of the indigenous communities to express their prior consent, free and informed, to the infrastructure projects that concern them,” the office said in a statement.

On June 30, 2017, a federal tribunal directed the secretary of energy to comply with the judge’s order halting construction of the pipeline that the Yaquis of Loma de Bácum had won in 2016.

The companies constructing the pipeline responded by continuing the project.

And the Yaqui community responded by digging out a section of the pipeline.

The incident was reported by local media outlets as an act of vandalism on the part of the Yaqui people.

Hueco que quedó tras arrancar un segmento de la tubería. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
The gap that was left behind after the removal of a section of the pipeline. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes for Mongabay Latam.

Less than a kilometer from the center of Loma de Bácum, a path runs toward the desert that reaches some signage for the pipeline work. To get there, one has to pass in front of a Sonoran police station that maintains constant surveillance. A little past that, there is a hole in the ground that used to hold a 10-meter section of the pipeline.

Next to the hole, on a recent day, was Higinio Ochoa, the same man who was proud of the 11 vehicles that were burned. He agreed to go with Mongabay Latam back to the location where the pipeline was removed.

Higinio Ochoa, yaqui de Loma de Bácum, en un recorrido por el gasoducto Guaymas-El Oro en el tramo que fue cortado. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
Higinio Ochoa, a Yaqui from Loma de Bácum, on a walk around the section of the Guaymas-El Oro pipeline that was cut. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes for Mongabay Latam.

“This land has to be defended, even at the cost of our lives, because that is what our Yaqui oath says; it’s why we’re here,” said Ochoa, a native of Loma de Bácum, under the midday desert sun. He spoke with the energy of a boxer in the corner of a ring in the middle of a fight.

The hole remains the same as when the Yaqui dug it, and there is no evidence of any personnel from the pipeline company in the area. As for the green section of pipe dug out of the ground, it is kept behind the Guardia Tradicional police station, in plain sight of anyone who passes through the town.

The violence continues

This spring new violence erupted. On May 4, 2018, a piece of land belonging to the community was set on fire. The Yaqui people in Loma de Bácum, viewing it as an act of aggression, went to ask for an explanation from the suspects, residents of Loma de Guamúchil. This sparked a new confrontation, and once again shots were fired and houses and vehicles burned.

The worst part is that there was a second fatality: Víctor Adolfo Molina Vázquez, an 18-year-old Yaqui. Saturnina Buitimea Piñas, a resident of Loma de Bácum, was injured.

Pompa, Sonora’s state secretary, was questioned about the confrontations in Loma de Bácum a few days after Vázquez’s death. He said the confrontations were unrelated to the pipeline.

El trozo que los yaquis arrancaron al gasoducto Guaymas-El Oro, detrás de las oficinas de la Guardia Tradicional Yaqui. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
The section of the Guaymas-El Oro pipeline that some Yaqui community members dug out of the ground, behind the Yaqui Guardia Tradicional police station. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes for Mongabay Latam.

One of the most upsetting things about the whole situation for many Yaqui in Loma de Bácum is that the bonds between the communities have been weakened so much that it resulted in violence and death.

For many, it’s crucial that there be a consensus between the eight communities, said a community member named Guadalupe Flores. “This is communal, not majority. Everyone or no one.”

Gasoducto de Aguaprieta did not respond to requests for information by Mongabay Latam. However, statements to the press given by Juan Rodríguez Castañeda, a company representative, state that “the construction has been following strict quality procedures and is under the supervision of specialists. [The company] remains in continuous contact with the entire community and authorities from the Civil Protection Agency.”

The project’s executive summary maintains that the pipeline is necessary because energy demands in Mexico have grown more than the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and that in 2020 the country will have an energy “deficit.” The summary says the pipeline is intended to connect northeastern Mexico to the National Pipeline System — a goal outlined in the country’s National Energy Strategy 2013-2027, and one reason the Mexican government supports the project.

For now, the pipeline remains incomplete and work on the Yaqui section has stopped.

Imagen registrada en Loma de Bacúm. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
Community members walk in Loma de Bácum. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes for Mongabay Latam.

Ties to the land

A Yaqui person with no money is not poor, but a Yaqui person with no land is poor, according to Carlón, the Yaqui lawyer opposed to the project. “We defend our territory because without land, there is no life; we would disappear and as Yaquis, we would just be one more poor population in Mexico,” she said.

She also explained the relationship between her community and the environment. “We live to understand the language of nature, to communicate with it, to be able to go to other dimensions inside of our beliefs. Nature takes us to other worlds,” Carlón said.

Anabela Carlón, abogada y activista yaqui, durante la entrevista con Mongabay Latam, en Loma de Bácum. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
Anabela Carlón, Yaqui activist and lawyer, during an interview with Mongabay Latam in Loma de Bácum. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes for Mongabay Latam.

According to Julio César Montané Martí, an investigator from the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Sonora, “indigenous people from Sonora created not only a relationship with nature, but also a transformed nature, and they learned to use all their resources, and because of that, no Indian died of thirst while crossing the desert.”

Where a Yori person might not see anything, the Yaqui people take a simple mesquite and turn it into flour, and can harvest prickly pears, pitayas and other wild fruits. They take advantage of honey and agave, as well as more than 100 medicinal plants in the area.

The relationship between the Yaqui tribe and the environment was one of the arguments used by the legal team against the construction of the pipeline, and was what allowed them to obtain the order suspending the project in 2016. The attorney representing the anti-pipeline group from Loma de Bácum argued that those deciding whether or not to allow the pipeline’s construction must consider “the direct harms generated towards their material and immaterial assets.”

For Rojo, the representative of the seven pro-pipeline Yaqui communities, “infrastructure is very important.”

Beyond the lawsuit and the violence, the Yaqui tribe has a plan to return to pre-colonial times when, according to Carlón, they had food sovereignty.

The traditional authorities from Loma de Bácum plan to plant 4,000 hectares (almost 9,890 acres) of diverse organic crops, in order to feed their families. “We want our children to be well-developed, more intelligent, and stronger, with their own identity and culture. It is the vision we have,” said Guadalupe Flores.

For the Yaqui in Loma de Bácum, that vision is better than the one of their children in the middle of an armed conflict.

Banner image courtesy of Canal Sonora Mexico.

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