Sonoran Indians fear new highway
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
PUNTA CHUECA, Sonora - For hundreds of
years, the Seri Indians have repelled Spanish Conquistadores, marauding
Indians and the Mexican government. They've used poisoned arrows, guerrilla
warfare and the proximity to the Sea of Cortez to defend against the forces
of the outside world.
But because of an ambitious highway
project along the Sonoran coast, their leaders worry about a new threat:
tourists from Arizona and California. The 234 Seri families that inhabit the
coast are usually left alone, but this year, gunfights between the tribe and
the government have underscored the conflicts tied to the encroachments of
the 21st century.
The government of Sonora has started
construction on a 375-mile, four-lane highway designed to be picked up by
travelers entering from San Luis Rio Colorado or Lukeville once they reach
A long stretch of the highway will
abut the Sonoran coast from Puerto Peñasco to south of Guaymas. The idea is
to offer a seaside drive to entice tourists into Sonora.
The problem for the Seri Indians,
tribal officials say, is that the highway will run up against their last two
remaining coastal villages: El Desemboque and Punta Chueca.
Eventually, the Gulf Coast Highway
will be lined by tourist stops, restaurants, stores and industry, said Oscar
Lopez, project director of the Sonoran coastal highway project.
The expectation is that as many
tourists will flock to the new coastal resort towns as already gather in
Puerto Peñasco, said Arizona-Mexico Commissioner Marco Lopez.
In line with that, Oscar Lopez said,
the Sonoran government has already begun work on the highway north of Puerto
Peñasco and has been running extensive radio and print ads in Arizona to
draw tourists and investors.
The project is one of the most
important tourist developments in Mexico today, said Augie Garcia, director
of the Tucson-Mexico Trade Office.
Tucson will gain as a secondary
beneficiary from the millions of dollars the coastal region will earn,
For their part, the tribe wants the
government to scoot the highway far around them and leave them out of the
modernities of the 21st century, though they doubt they'll have a choice.
"We have no confidence in Sonora at
this point," said Gonzalo Saúl Torres Morales, Seri tribal secretary. "That
government will say anything because they believe this highway is beneficial
Sonora government officials offered no
response to a week's worth of questions about the project's impact on the
But in May, Gov. Eduardo Bours Castelo
told La Jornada newspaper that if the Seri Indians did not cooperate with
the project, that would turn back the clock on the highway, adding, "I am
worried about the backwardness of the Seris."
"Reduced to coastal strip"
The Seris have moved
constantly throughout Sonora as nomadic wanderers, returning always to the
sea where they fish the gulf waters and hunt sea turtles, said tribal
anthropologist Ernesto Molina.
The Seris used to live in an area that
covered nearly half of the Sonoran coast, said Thomas Sheridan, a University
of Arizona anthropology professor who has written about the Seris. In the
1860s, they were finally worn down by a Spanish military that learned
guerrilla warfare was the way to battle the Sonoran Desert Indians, he said.
"Now they've been reduced to a coastal
strip," he said.
Modernity struck in 1935 when the
tribe realized it could turn its villages into commercial fishing towns. By
the 1980s, a dwindling fish population further endangered the tribe's
existence. Finally, in the 1990s, the tribe started issuing permits to
hunters in the United States for the bighorn sheep that inhabit Tiburon
Island, within sight of Punta Chueca, Molina said.
Now, the modern world threatens the
"It's already started with the
influences on our kids and on our language," said Enrique Robles, who runs
security in Punta Chueca. "We're about to lose more with the highway."
Today, few outsiders enter the
villages on the coast. To get there, travelers must negotiate a bad dirt
road on hard-packed sand nearly 20 miles from the nearest town, Bahia Kino,
a popular vacation spot for visitors from Hermosillo.
Even shade can't be trusted
The 21st century has already
encroached. Robles wiped black grease from a boat engine he was rebuilding
as he recently talked about his concerns, while inside, his wife used a
fishbone needle to weave a small basket for the July 1 Seri new year
A condominium complex is being
constructed 10 miles from Punta Chueca. Tribal elder Alfredo Lopez says the
condominiums don't bother him because visitors have no reason to drive any
farther up the road. But the coming highway will slice into Seri land, he
said, and that's going to introduce a new element into the Seri culture.
"Can you imagine? The drug
traffickers, the strangers, all penetrating into this area," Lopez said.
"You have to understand, in our culture, we learn to not even trust the
shade. We're going to be dealing with complete foreigners threatening our
way of life."
The Seris are negotiating with the
Sonoran government to move the highway farther inland, but the conflicts
have escalated into open hostility, he said.
Last March, a group of 40 uniformed
officers in 14 trucks entered Punta Chueca armed with AR-15s, firing at
buildings and terrifying villagers, Torres Morales said.
The Sonora Attorney General's Office
gave a different account, saying it was a Seri Indian who opened fire on
state police who entered the village to serve an arrest warrant on a man
wanted for assault.
"They protected him," said Jose
Larrinaga, spokesman for the state prosecutor's office in Hermosillo.
Then, a week later, the pilot of
Mexican Attorney General's Office helicopter was shot in the leg as he flew
over Punta Chueca, Molina and Larrinaga said.
Molina argues it could have been a
non-Seri who did the shooting, but added that some Seris feel they are being
pushed off their land by development.
"What else are we supposed to do?" he