The Yaqui, today divided in eight groups and numbering a bit more than 40,000 people altogether, are known in Mexico as the undefeated tribe. To be called a Yaqui implies that you are obstinate, relentless and, potentially, fierce. Yet this historical reputation as unrelenting warriors in the face of, first, an encroaching Spanish empire and, later, an independent Mexico masks their vulnerability today. Indeed, the story to edge the Yaqui off their land and stake claims to the Yaqui River — considered sacred by Indigenous communities — is not a new one.
For many political and business leaders, the Yaqui and their ancestral claim to both land and river have long stood in the way of what was deemed progress: modernization via commercial agriculture. The river and its irrigated banks drew 19th-century politicians and speculators alike to the region with dreams of an agricultural basin that would export food across borders to places as far away as New York and Panama. By the mid-20th century, agriculture, specifically cash crops such as cotton, rice and wheat, transformed Sonora into one of Mexico’s wealthiest states. Today, because of the region’s place in global food chains, the outcome of the battle for control over the once-mighty Yaqui River reaches far beyond this region and its people and affects us all.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Yaqui, Pima, Mayo, Seri and other Indigenous groups in what is now Sonora relied on the Yaqui River and its adjacent rich soil for agriculture. In the late 1880s, Mexico’s dictator Porfirio Díaz sponsored the Sonoran Scientific Commission to survey the lands of northern Mexico with an eye toward building future federal irrigation projects and expanding mining. In the 1890s, Mexican entrepreneur Carlos Conant formed the Sonora and Sinaloa Irrigation Company, which prepared to build canals, locks and dikes, and sell bonds to potential American investors.
The Yaqui who lived in the region resisted this encroachment, knowing well that if the waters of the river were tamed into canals and dams, they would lose control of the region. They protected their territory by sabotaging irrigation canals and water pipelines that crisscrossed their land, and within a few years the irrigation company went bankrupt.
In 1905, the Los Angeles-based Richardson brothers — W.E. Richardson and Davis Richardson — took over the failed venture, opening the door to major water projects that arrived hand-in-hand with land colonization when they developed a new town (the future Ciudad Obregón) and connected it to the Southern Pacific railroad. Photos of the time show the Richardson Company headquarters under heavy guard and surrounded by barrels filled with cement to protect against attacks by Yaqui people who refused to cede their land to engineers and investors.
The Mexican army was sent to battle the Yaqui to protect the irrigation project which had attracted both new investors and colonos, “colonizing” farmers who promised to develop Sonora into a major agricultural hub. Unable to defeat the Yaqui and determined to clear space for agricultural production and ranching, the government hatched a plan to deport the various tribes to faraway Yucatán on cattle rail cars.
Deportations purposefully separated families, tearing children from mothers, to impose trauma and weaken Yaqui resistance. The majority who survived the train and boat rides to Yucatán were sold as forced laborers to plantations where most died of malaria, other endemic diseases and physical abuse in the peninsula’s henequen fields. The state of Sonora seized the property of those deported.
In 1910, muckraker John Kenneth Turner wrote “Barbarous Mexico,” an exposé of Diaz’s abuses, which detailed “the extermination” of the Yaqui and described how at this time they were hunted for sport, with a pair of Yaqui ears fetching nearly $100 for soldiers.
Yet it took almost two decades for a Mexican president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to acknowledge the injustices suffered by the surviving Yaqui in Sonora. In 1937, he granted the tribe, via a presidential decree, ownership of their traditional territory and, most important, the water they needed to farm. Two years later, the Yaqui were awarded rights to half of all the water contained by the (at the time) only dam on the Yaqui River.
However, with continued heavy domestic and international investment, southern Sonora also became a haven for agricultural research. In the 1940s, famed agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug selected Ciudad Obregón as a site to experiment with hybrid wheat seeds. By that time two major dams, with a third on its way, controlled the Yaqui River, making required water available for experimental plots. The fabled seeds that launched the Green Revolution transforming farming from India to Ethiopia to Colombia were manufactured in these fields, former Yaqui lands, fed by the Yaqui River. By mid-century, despite possessing only 7 percent of Mexico’s total agricultural lands, more than 60 percent of which is irrigated, Sonora became the nation’s most productive agricultural state.
And so, despite presidential decrees, the Yaqui continued to struggle to attain water for their land, and had to compete with growing agribusiness in the region. In 2010, the Sonoran government approved and began construction of a 145-kilometer-long (90-mile-long) aqueduct that would take water from the Yaqui River to the water-starved state capital Hermosillo. When construction began the Yaqui blocked highways and went to court. They won the right to stop construction — seven times.
Despite this, the aqueduct was finished and has been siphoning water away from southern Sonora since 2013. Climate change has exacerbated water shortages, groundwater has been depleted or polluted, and the aqueduct’s siphoning of water has led to an urban-rural struggle to control natural resources — in the midst of one of the region’s worst droughts. Water for everyone in the region is still a major issue — and even though today most Yaqui are not farmers but rent out their lands to larger commercial farmers, they continue to protest what they see as illegal power grabs and environmental violence by agribusiness.
Despite government acknowledgment of the historical persecution of the Yaqui and a promise in 2020 to set up a multiagency Justice Commission to examine enduring water and land claims, attacks on them continue. In fact, in a new wave of violence Yaqui water activists have been jailed, killed or disappeared, including the Yaqui spokesman for water rights Tomás Rojo, who was taken while out for a walk. He was last heard from in late May, and recently his remains were found and identified.
This violence and the killing of Domínguez Mendoza is not simply the story of another murdered Yaqui leader; it is about control of an increasingly scarce natural resource: water. This historical struggle is relevant to all of us because, ironically, the Yaqui’s defense of the river allowed commercial agriculture to thrive in this region. With less water even commercial farmers and cattle ranchers are now desperate for the crucial resource, and their plight will be felt across food supply chains and, eventually, our dinner tables.