Amid killings and COVID, Mexico’s Yaqui people get pledges

Sep 28, 2021, 2:59 AM | Updated: 3:02 pm
FILE - In this  July 10, 2021 file photo, Victor Ruiz Valencia removes his hat during the burial of...

FILE - In this July 10, 2021 file photo, Victor Ruiz Valencia removes his hat during the burial of his cousin, Indigenous rights leader Tomas Rojo, in the Yaqui Indigenous community Vicam, Sonora state, Mexico. The Yaqui Indigenous community has been hit by a wave of killings and coronavirus deaths, so the country's long-awaited public apology on Tuesday, September 28, 2021, for centuries of abuses Tuesday rang a little hollow. (AP Photo/Luis Gutierrez)

(AP Photo/Luis Gutierrez)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s Yaqui people have been hit by a wave of killings and coronavirus deaths, so the country’s long-awaited public apology for centuries of abuses Tuesday rang a little hollow.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had hoped the ceremony would mark a turning point in the woes of what he has described as Mexico’s most persecuted Indigenous group, which suffered a government campaign to exterminate or exile its members around 1900.

“We are here to try to repair, to the extent possible, the damages that were done to the Yaqui peoples,” López Obrador said, calling the war against them “one of the most shameful chapters in our country’s history.”

In the 1960s, the Yaquis became known abroad for the mystical and visionary powers ascribed to them by writer Carlos Castañeda.

The somber ceremony Tuesday was marked by a moment of silence for a Yaqui leader who died Sunday of COVID-19.

López Obrador came bearing gifts: His administration signed agreements to return almost 7,500 acres (3,000 hectares) of Indigenous land to the community and make good on agreements to reserve half the water of the Yaqui River for Indigenous use.

The government also promised to build an aqueduct to bring drinking water to Yaqui communities in northern Sonora state that have long lacked it.

Known as the Plan for Justice, the moves are aimed at reversing long-standing abuses, like the fact that most of the water from the river that bears the Yaquis’ name is siphoned off to supply urban areas in Sonora.

“The Plan for Justice is not a gift, it is not a handout,” Yaqui leader Jesús Patricio Varela said at the ceremony. “It seeks to return to us that which is ours: the territory that was taken from us, the use of water which has been limited for us, the dignity they wanted to take from us.”

“Justice begins today with the acres that are going to handed over, but we know we have rights to much more,” Varela said.

Because some Yaquis live in the United States, Mexican officials said they invited Secretary of State Antony Blinken to participate but no U.S. administration officials came. The ceremony in the Yaqui town of Vicam was attended by Peter Yucupicio, chair of the tribal council of the Pascua Yaqui in Arizona and Arizona state Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales.

The meeting started with a moment of silence for Yaqui leader Agustin González Estrella, who died Sunday, reportedly of COVID-19, which has also sickened other prominent Yaquis.

The area has some of Mexico’s most productive farmland, where water — available largely from the Yaqui River — is a vital and precious commodity.

Alberto Vizcarra, a leader of the Sonora Citizen’s Movement for Water, said López Obrador’s promises of water were deceptive. Recent droughts make it unlikely the government can actually fulfill promises to hand out more water rights.

“It is a dead-end street to promise water that isn’t available” in exchange for Yaquis renouncing their rights to water stored in a dam upstream that is currently being used to supply the Sonora state capital of Hermosillo, Vizcarra said.

There was also no moment of silence for the five Yaqui men whose skeletal remains were found on a remote hillside last week. They were among 10 Yaquis who were abducted July 15.

Prosecutors said more bone fragments and possessions had been found in the rugged rural area, suggesting some of the five men still missing may also have died there.

The Sonora state prosecutor’s office has suggested that the murder of Yaqui leader Tomás Rojo Valencia in May and the abduction and apparent killing of the 10 Yaquis in July were the work of drug cartels or allied local gangs.

Leftist leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas said the killings “cannot go unpunished,” and demanded an end to siphoning water off for use in Hermosillo.

There has been a huge increase in violence in the area around Vicam and the nearby city of Ciudad Obregon in the last year, something authorities say is due to turf battles between rival cartels.

The skeletal remains of the five Yaquis were found near what prosecutors described as a gang hide-out. Investigators searching for the missing Yaquis came under automatic rifle fire Sept. 19 on the remote hillside near where the skeletons were found.

Prosecutors cited similar claims about the killing of the Yaqui rights leader in May. They said a gang killed Rojo Valencia because it wanted money that his Indigenous group had raised at highway blockades.

Rojo Valencia disappeared May 27 amid tensions over months of periodic blockades the Yaqui put up to protest gas lines, water pipelines and railway tracks that have been run across their territory without consulting them or giving them much benefit.

The Yaquis stubbornly fought the Mexican government’s brutal campaign to eliminate the tribe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But they were largely defeated by 1900 and dictator Porfirio Diaz began moving them off their fertile farmland to less valuable territory or to virtual enslavement on haciendas as far away as the far eastern state of Yucatan.

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Amid killings and COVID, Mexico’s Yaqui people get pledges