- Gabriel Trujillo, a biologist from the U.S. with roots in Mexico, was shot and killed in the northeastern state of Sonora, Mexico, while collecting plant samples for his Ph.D. research.
- It’s the third fatal incident committed against researchers studying the environment in different parts of Mexico in recent years.
- Biologists from California and Sonora received threats just for looking for Trujillo, who was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley.
Gabriel Trujillo was unstoppable when it came to studying nature. Botany, his passion, led him to explore lots of places while cataloging plants and their behaviors. In June 2023, that research took him from California to the mountains of Sonora in northeastern Mexico in hopes of finding Cephalanthus occidentalis, a shrub that was crucial to his work. That trip would also end with his violent death.
Trujillo’s body was found with several bullet wounds on Thursday, June 22, on the side of a road connecting San Nicolás to Tepoca, in the municipality of Yécora. The 31-year-old scientist had been killed three days prior, on June 19, the same day his family had reported him missing.
After losing communication with Trujillo, other biologists in Sonora and California started to look for him. They called around, organized a WhatsApp group, traveled to the area where he was last seen, and interviewed people who knew about his stay in Sonora. Even though they started receiving death threats, they didn’t stop until he was found.
One Mexican biologist who helped in the search for Trujillo and who is not being named here for his safety, said death threats started coming in after he and other scientists filed a complaint about the disappearance.
Eight days after Trujillo’s body was found, on June 30, the Sonoran prosecutor’s office released a statement that it was in the process of gathering evidence to clarify the facts of the case and who was responsible.
Trujillo’s killing followed another attack the same month that resulted in the deaths of two other scientists. Then, on June 30, there was a shooting targeting a biology student from the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Oaxaca state.
Searching for a bush
Yécora is rich in biodiversity. Located in eastern Sonora, the municipality makes up part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Its flora is comprised mostly of dense pine and oak forests. It’s where C. occidentalis grows — the shrub that fascinated Trujillo.
The plant, known as the common buttonbush, has a lot of interesting characteristics. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the small, white-flowered plant can be found in swamps, floodplains and other wetland areas. It’s present on the southeast coast of the U.S. and throughout the Midwest, with scattered occurrences in Arizona and Sonora.
Trujillo’s interests had to do precisely with the evolution of tropical woody plants and their rare transition to temperate areas.
“I’m particularly interested in the genus Cephalanthus, a group of woody angiosperms present in boreal and tropical zones. My research focuses on how functional plant traits associated with frost tolerance are lost or gained, and how these traits facilitate the expansion of the range of species from their tropical origins to temperate zones,” Trujillo wrote on Fine Lab, the website of the team of field ecologists at the University of California, Berkeley.
In Sonora, where Trujillo was doing his work, there had already been several instances of violence.
In November 2019, criminal groups shot and burned to death three women from the U.S. and six of their children near the border between Sonora and Chihuahua. The killing of the LeBaron family, who lived in the area, became an international scandal that to this day hasn’t been resolved. Almost three years later, in September 2022, four workers from the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) were shot at from the top of a hill on the state highway heading from Yécora to Hermosillo. Two of them were shot multiple times then burned in their government vehicle. Two others managed to survive by hiding in the bushes.
Trujillo didn’t have any plans to go where his body was ultimately found. According to colleagues, the biologist left from the town of Tónichi, where he was renting a room, to work in San Javier 25 kilometers (15 miles) west. However, his body was found more than 80 km (50 mi) away from there. “The other two records he had of the plant he was looking for were in Ónavas, which happens to be where the CFE workers were killed last year,” the biologist who was searching for Trujillo said.
Where science is banned
For the researchers, carrying out their work in Mexico can be incredibly complicated and risky. Throughout the Sonora landscape, many areas are considered impenetrable. “There are a lot of places where you can’t work well or where we avoid working. There are a lot of areas that you can’t visit: Caborca, Sásabe, the high part of Nácori Chico, Yécora, Rosario de Tesopaco, the coast. It’s risky because there are drug, arms and human trafficking routes,” the biologist said.
Different environmental organizations that collaborated with Trujillo, as well as people close to him, said they were distraught. Some published their condolences and statements regretting the incident, but preferred not to speak to Mongabay on the record. Others living in the area or carrying out fieldwork in Sonora declined to talk out of fear of retaliation.
Jamie Tijerina, a scientist and the president of the Highland Park Heritage Trust, issued a statement on Twitter calling on “the Mexican government to fully investigate and deliver justice for Gabriel and his family.”
Violence against scientists
In 2009, biologists Arturo Caso and Sasha Carvajal-Villarreal were forced to leave Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico where they studied ocelots (Leopardus pardalis). The research project was suspended due to the violence of organized crime that had become so prolific in the area.
“We’ve had shootings and the theft of camera traps by people in the cartels,” said Caso, the president of Predator Conservation. “We had to suspend our fieldwork in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León because of the insecurity of the area. Our fieldwork came to an end. We couldn’t continue. We were representatives of northeast Mexico for the conservation of the jaguar, the black bear and other small cats like the ocelot and jaguarundi, but we had to stop participating because of the insecurity.”
Caso said he remembers 2009, the year they stopped working in that part of Mexico, as a time of uncertainty and silence. It didn’t always show in the local news, but the violence was increasing rapidly. “If you ask me how things have changed between 2009 and now, if the violence has really affected us, I can say that everything has changed, and for the worse,” he said.
“Some peers have done a little bit of fieldwork in Tamaulipas, in the same area where before I could drive my truck at 4 in the morning without a problem in El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. Now they tell me they don’t know if they’re going to go there.”
Scientists have since had to redouble their precautionary measures when they do fieldwork. But it’s not just that. Caso said there have been researchers in states like Sinaloa who have had to explain what they’re doing to drug traffickers and ask permission to pass through certain areas.
“We don’t get involved with anyone,” Caso said. “What we want people to understand is what’s happening in nature so we can conserve the species there. That’s our only objective: to know more, to be able to enrich our scientific understanding for better conservation of plants and animals.”
The insecurity has also had other impacts on the work of scientists and, as a consequence, on the knowledge and conservation of flora and fauna. Caso said very few funders interested in the conservation of species want to pour resources into projects that don’t have a conclusion. He gave an example: “When we did a study for the Commission of Natural Protected Areas [CONANP], we put 30 cameras on a property in Tamaulipas that the commission knew about. But then we couldn’t get in and we lost all of them.”
But there’s a paradox in all of this. Just as researchers avoid certain areas, poachers have also become less frequent. This has had an indirect benefit on bears (Ursus americanus), jaguars (Panthera onca) and other feline species. “There are reports of jaguars where before there weren’t any,” Caso said. “Also, bears that come down into urban areas. No hunter is going to fire a shot on the off chance that a narco confuses it for something else.”
The risks continue
At the start of June, with the return of Trujillo’s remains to California, his family and friends held different ceremonies to say their goodbyes. One of them was an Aztec dance by a group that Trujillo was a part of. In addition to his love for nature, he always had an interest in reconnecting with his ancestral roots with the Indigenous Ópata people.
There was also a Catholic ceremony in which an urn was accompanied by dozens of yellow flowers. His friends also donated at least five dozen trees to plant in the forest in honor of his memory.
“We’re really sorry about what happened to Gabe. The scientific community in Sonora is sorry and we wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” the biologist said. “It’s very sad. Now all of us researchers have to be more cautious when we’re working in the field. We have to make ourselves known and let organized crime know that we’re not doing any harm. The only thing we do is generate information for the management of natural resources in our country.”
Banner image of Gabriel Trujillo, killed in Sonora, Mexico. Image by AskACABotanist via Twitter.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and Mongabay, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.