The Struggle of Mexico’s Indigenous Yaqui Communities

Photo: Mauricio Marat/INAH


MORELIA, Michoacán — In the southwest corner of Mexico’s northern state of Sonora, the remnants of one of the country’s oldest ethnic groups can still be found: the Yaqui people, who despite a tumultuous relationship with the government throughout modern Mexican history, have remained standing and constantly fighting for their land and basic human rights.

The indigenous group, also known as the Hiaki or Yoeme, has historically been marginalized and suffered great injustices at the hands of the Mexican government.

Perhaps best known for their use of peyote for spiritual and mystical visions as described by Mexican author Carlos Castaneda in his book “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” and for their haunting portrayal of the hunting down and death of a deer in their traditional Danza del Venado, the Yaqui have always prided themselves on being great warriors.

It was that warrior spirit that allowed them to stubbornly fight off the Mexican government’s brutal campaign of genocide in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Within a single decade, an estimated 60,000 Yaqui tribe members were killed or disappeared.

In the 19th century, during the ironfisted reign of Porfirio Díaz, known as the Porfiriato, when large groups of Yaqui were exiled from their homeland and taken by force to the south of the country as indentured laborers for plantations in states such as Yucatán, the Yaqui have resisted.

Some managed to escape and return by foot to their villages (many  only to be met by armed groups that refused to let them stay), and others took refuge in the southern United States, where many still live today.

During the Mexican Revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Yaqui joined the insurgent forces of General Álvaro Obregón, who promised them land and autonomy.

But once the revolution was won, Obregón soon forgot those promises and the Yaqui were again left to fend for themselves.

It was not until the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1940s that the Yaqui were officially given a few hectares of land, a mere pittance compared to their original territory.

Then, in 2010, the construction of a new aqueduct through Yaqui territory set off tensions over water rights.

Access by the Yaqui to the Yaqui River, which historically belonged to them, was severely restricted, and competition for scarce hydrological resources in the region led to a mass migration of its rural inhabitants to the urban centers.

Those Yaqui who have steadfastly remained on their land continue to confront challenges.

One major source of conflict has been a recent government-mandated program to conduct measurements of properties located in the Yaqui territory to determine whether they belong to the communities or are owned by private landlords.

This survey has led to mounting disputes over land ownership that have culminated in the disappearances and murders of dozens of Yaqui people and activists.

Just last month, the skeleton remains of five Yaqui men who were abducted in mid-July were discovered by local authorities, apparent victims of drug cartel territorial wars, and in May, Yaqui human rights activist Tomás Rojo was killed after protesting the aqueduct and federal expropriation of Yaqui land rights.

At present, the population of Mexico’s Yaqui is estimated at about 300,000, most of whom belong to the Pasqua Yaqui community that lives under an autonomous government system based on local tradition.

There are no hard and fast numbers as to how many Yaqui live in other areas of the country and have “assimilated” into general Mexican society, so the real Yaqui population is unknown.

Meanwhile, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) — who has repeatedly proclaimed himself a “defender” of Mexico’s 17 million indigenous people (despite often allowing his love for megaprojects to overshadow his respect for indigenous rights and territories, as in the case of his controversial Tren Maya tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula, which has spurred countless protests and law suits from Maya residents) — has recently taken up the banner of the Yaqui people, who he has labeled the country’s “most persecuted indigenous group.”

On Thursday, Sep 28, AMLO traveled to Sonora to meet with the members of the Pasqua Yaqui tribe.  During that visit, the president promised to oversee the restitution of land, water and territory to the Yaqui people, as stated in a decree that was published in the Official Gazette of the Federation (DOF) the following day.

The document establishes two main points: the restitution of 2,900 hectares to the Yaqui people in the Sonoran municipalities of Guaymas, Cajeme, Empalme and San Ignacio Río Muerto, and the creation of a 126,259-hectare irrigation district to be administered by the Yaqui people.

Likewise, during his visit to this community, AMLO offered a formal apology to the Yaqui people for the marginalization, abuses and injustices committed against them by previous governments, calling the Porfiriato “one of the most shameful chapters in the nation’s history.”

For their part, the Yaqui expressed their appreciation of the president’s gestures, but made it clear that they understandably do not trust government promises or alleged acts of generosity.

“The justice plan is not a gift. It’s not welfare,” said Yaqui representative Jesus Patricio Varela in response to AMLO’s apologetic speech.

“It seeks to give us back what is rightfully ours — territory that was taken from us, the water that has been limited to us, the dignity that they have wanted to steal from us.”

The Yaqui certainly have ample cause to be weary.




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