Sonoran Indians fear new highway
Jul. 9, 2005

By Michael Marizco
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 Puerto Peñasco.
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, Garcia said.
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 to them."
Sonora government officials offered no response to a week's worth of questions about the project's impact on the Seri Indians.
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 tribe again.
"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 celebration.
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 asked.
● Contact reporter Michael Marizco at 573-4213 or