Mexico arrests gang member accused of killing Indigenous leader

The body of Tomas Rojo Valencia, a Yaqui Indigenous leader, was found on June 17, half-buried with his head bashed in.

Tomas Rojo Valencia disappeared on May 27 amid tensions over months of periodic blockades that the Yaqui put up to protest against construction across their territory without consulting them [File: Paola Chiamonte/Reuters]

Prosecutors in the northern Mexico border state of Sonora say they have arrested a suspect in the killing of a Yaqui Indigenous rights leader who had raised money for his community on highway blockades.

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

Late on Monday, the Sonora attorney general said a 26-year-old man named Francisco Hiram also known as “El Morocho” was arrested on homicide charges and was being held in detention while the investigation continues.

Sonora state prosecutor Claudia Contreras said Rojo Valencia had been trying to install a toll booth on a main highway that runs through Yaqui territory to raise money for his Indigenous community.

She said it was that money that was behind the killing of Rojo Valencia.

Criminal groups “were interested in illegal benefits from charging tolls on the highway,” Contreras said. “Tomas Rojo was pushing for the installation of a toll booth to bring order to the process of charging tolls, to really benefit the Yaqui people.”

The prosecutor said Rojo Valencia’s body was found on June 17. It was half-buried in a rural area near the Yaqui town of Vicam, his head bashed in, apparently by a nearby hammer.

Contreras said police were led to the gang after discovering a clandestine gun repair workshop apparently linked to the criminal group.

Businessmen and truckers have complained that the Yaqui roadblocks seriously affect the movement of raw materials and export goods and said protesters were sometimes abusive or demanded money to allow them to pass. In February, a trucker ploughed through a Yaqui roadblock, hitting and killing a member of the group.

Trailer trucks take part in a caravan to protest against the Yaqui Indigenous roadblocks in the state of Sonora, in Monterrey, Mexico [File: Daniel Becerril/Reuters]

Mexico has had a huge problem in recent years with protest groups taking over existing toll booths or setting up highway blockades and charging motorists to proceed. In 2020, industry officials said as many as two dozen toll plazas across the country were seized by such protests on any given day and estimated the groups probably took in about $150m a year.

In late 2020, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against the highway takeovers, sending the National Guard and police to clear many of them, though apparently not including Yaqui blockades.

Lopez Obrador has made it his special project to bring justice to the Yaquis, whom he has described as Mexico’s most persecuted Indigenous group.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies