Home Mexico Sonorans protest Mexico’s secretive plans for new train

Sonorans protest Mexico’s secretive plans for new train

Sonorans protest Mexico’s secretive plans for new train


Yvonne Siquieros says she’s a homemaker and mother of three who has never been involved in a political battle before.

But she’s among the residents of Ímuris, Sonora who are protesting the Mexican government’s secretive plan to run a freight-train line through their community, about 40 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, and through a fragile conservation area, before conducting an environmental review.

“I never imagined being in this fight for my heritage,” Siquieros told the Arizona Daily Star, in text messages written in Spanish. “We do not have the opportunity to stop it. But we do have the opportunity to make the government see that there are alternative ways to carry out the project, where the environmental impact is a little less and it does not divide the municipality.”

Yvonne Siquieros is a resident of Ímuris, Sonora, who is protesting the Mexican government’s plans to run a new rail line through her community and through a fragile conservation area to the northeast.

A leaked map of the train’s route shows it passes through Ímuris before following the lush terrain along the Cocóspera River northeast to the Comaquito Dam, then later linking up with existing railway. Ímuris residents have submitted an alternate route for the train project, even though it is already under construction, Siquieros said.

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The controversial railway, which is an extension of an existing train route between Guaymas and Nogales, would cut through El Aribabi Conservation Ranch, where jaguars, ocelots and black bears have been spotted, said Russ McSpadden, southwest conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

It would also risk destroying a rare firefly sanctuary along the river, he said.

The Cocóspera River is “a really lush and biodiverse ribbon of green, with willows and cottonwoods and sycamores,” McSpadden told the Star. “It’s a spectacular place. Parts of the river feel like jungle. It’s an oasis that snakes through the desert and runs between some important mountain ranges.” 

The route would divide the important migration corridor between the Sierra Azul and El Pinito mountain ranges and diminish hopes of boosting the populations of ocelot and jaguar, which are endangered species in both the U.S. and Mexico, he said.

A leaked map of the proposed rail line in northern Sonora shows that it would displace dozens of families from their homes in Ímuris, Sonora, and cut through a fragile conservation area on its way north, according to Wildlands Network.

“Any jaguars we see here in Arizona, they are part of the same population as those jaguars in and around the Río Cocóspera,” the river the new railway would follow, he said. “The northern-most breeding population of ocelots in the region is in this important wildlife corridor. It’s a very small and fragile population, but it is a breeding population. It’s critical to any efforts to recover the species north of the border, as well.”  

Lack of transparency

The train has been planned in secrecy, leaving affected residents in Ímuris fighting for any official information. After a local radio station first reported on the project, military officials visited Ímuris in February to discuss it with residents but the meeting left them with more questions than answers, Siquieros said.

Conservationists in Sonora have also been struggling to find details on the train project.

In 2010 and 2011, remote cameras set up by the Sky Island Alliance captured images of jaguars within the environmentally sensitive El Aribabi Conservation Ranch area, which lies in the path of a proposed new rail line in northern Sonora. This 2010 photo shows a jaguar in the conservation area. The cameras also captured an ocelot here in 2008.

Mirna Manteca, a biologist with Wildlands Network, told The Associated Press that she began researching the project after concerned locals contacted her in March.

The town of Imuris first told residents that it was a state project, while the Sonoran government insisted it is a federal project. But every federal department Manteca contacted said it had no information it could share about a train project in Imuris, the AP reported on Nov. 18.

“They’ve kind of been ping ponging responsibilities back and forth, but we haven’t been able to get any real information,” Manteca told the AP. “It’s so strange. It’s like fighting a ghost.”

Construction for the controversial new train line in northern Mexico, in San Lorenzo, Sonora. Residents are battling the line, which they say threatens to displace their homes and cut up the local ecosystem.  

A spokesman for Sonora Governor Alfonso Durazo’s office told the Star the project is being executed by the federal Secretary of National Defense, known as SEDENA, and thus the state office could not provide official documentation about the project.

The change in route complements the state’s development plan, supported by the federal government, which includes the $245 million modernization of the port in Guaymas, allowing it to receive large container ships from Asia, Durazo said in a Tuesday news conference.

Part of the plan also aims to relocate the international railroad crossing from the middle of downtown Nogales, Sonora to less populated areas to the east.

These changes are necessary to facilitate commercial exchange between Mexico and the U.S., Durazo said in the news conference. Without moving the railway out of downtown Nogales, the city would be “paralyzed” by the increased rail traffic, he said.

“The modernization of the Guaymas port wouldn’t make sense without the relocation of the railroad tracks” in Nogales, he said.

Residents in Imuris say that explanation isn’t adequate. There aren’t yet concrete plans to move the railroad crossing at the Arizona border, and there are less environmentally and socially destructive routes that could achieve that eastward shift of the train tracks, Siquieros said.

“There is no logic in dividing and destroying Imuris, being that there are more viable alternative routes without so much impact,” she said.

A spokesman for Durazo’s office declined to respond to that point on Friday, citing the federal government’s dominion over the project.

Construction work for a new train line in northern Mexico, in San Lorenzo, Sonora.

One possible explanation, reported by the AP, is that the proposed route will bring rail lines closer to mines owned by Grupo Mexico, parent company of rail operator FerroMex. The new route runs within 10 miles of Santa Cruz, where Grupo Mexico plans to open a open-pit copper mine in 2025, according to the AP.

Impact in Arizona

The anticipated boom in freight traffic between Guaymas and Nogales, Arizona, has raised concerns north of the border, too.

The additional cargo is expected to increase the volume of freight trains passing through Nogales, Arizona, from four to six per day, to as many as 20 trains per day, said Jorge Maldonado, mayor of the Arizona city. 

“I want to get the rail out of Nogales,” Maldonado told the Star. “The rail is presenting some danger already. They come right through the middle of the city now.” 

Emergency services, fire response and access to the city’s hospital — all on the west side of the tracks — could all be impeded by the additional rail traffic, he said. 

In October 2022, the city’s previous mayor, Juan Francisco Gim Nogales, signed an agreement with the mayor of Nogales, Sonora to begin discussions about shifting the international railroad crossing further east, away from the urban center of both Nogaleses, Maldonado said.

But any kind of construction is a long way off, he said.

Union Pacific, which operates the rail line in Nogales, isn’t yet on board with the idea, Maldonado said. The Omaha, Nebraska-based company told the AP it has no plans to move the track in Nogales.

Militarization in Mexico

For critics, the train project is another example of the growing militarization of Mexico’s public works and law enforcement under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The Army has been allowed to bypass normal permitting and environmental standards, as in the case of the Maya Train tourist rail line on the Yucatan peninsula, the AP reported.

Facing court challenges and criticism, López Obrador in 2021 passed a law stating that projects of importance to “national security” would not have to submit impact statements until up to a year after they start construction, according to the AP.

The state of Sonora’a only active role in the project is to help the Army secure the rights-of-way, Durazo said.

State officials have offered residents as little as 1.80 pesos, about 10 cents, per meter for their properties, Siquieros told the Star. Her family was offered a similarly sized home in another location, and a financial settlement, which they refused, she said.

“I would recover my property after they destroyed everything. We did not accept,” she said. “It’s a mockery for all of us.”

A major rail project in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is intended to drive economic development to some of the country’s poorest areas but scientists and environmentalists worry that the project will hurt unique ecosystems nearby.

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@tucson.com. On X, formerly Twitter: @EmilyBregel


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