An ecologist and field biologist who was in graduate school at UC Berkeley was found dead last week in the Mexican state of Sonora, killed in his car in what sounds like a cartel-style hit while he was out collecting plants.
Gabriel Trujillo, 31, was found dead on June 22, sitting in his SUV, after he had gone out on a plant-collecting day trip in a remote part of Sonora. As the Associated Press reports, Trujillo was studying a flowering shrub called the common buttonbush, and he was interested in how it thrived in so many varied habitats across North America.
The last anyone heard from Trujillo, he had spoken to his fiancée, Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos, on the morning of June 19. He had driven into Mexico from Arizona two days earlier, crossing at Nogales, and he was staying in an Airbnb while he did his field work. As Cruz-de Hoyos tells the AP, she was undergoing fertility treatment and the couple was going to try to start a family — and this was to be Trujillo's last trek before they got married and started trying to get pregnant.
Cruz-de Hoyos says that she immediately flew down to Mexico after she couldn't get ahold of Trujillo — they normally would talk multiple times in a day — and when his Airbnb hosts said his belongings were still at the place but he had not returned.
On June 22, Trujillo's body was found 62 miles from the Airbnb. Mexican authorities have not revealed anything about a cause of death, nor have they called this a murder, the AP reports. The NY Post, however, refers to his "bullet-ridden body" being found.
"Evidently he was in the wrong place," said his father, Anthony Trujillo, speaking to the AP. The elder Trujillo also flew down to Mexico after his son's body was discovered, and on Thursday he was flying back to Michigan with his ashes.
On a GoFundMe page to raise funds for his funeral services, Cruz-de Hoyos writes, "Gabriel was and is beyond what words can express. He was brilliant, genuine, talented, adventurous, brave, generous, and above all unfailingly kind and loving to everyone. He was a son, brother, cherished family member, fiancé, and friend. He was a deeply spiritual Danzante and was reconnecting to his Indigenous Opata and Nahua ancestry."
She also shared that there would be an upcoming Danza Azteca ceremony in the Bay Area to celebrate his life, which "Gabriel would have wanted deeply." Another funeral is being held in Michigan next week.
UC Berkeley's Department of Integrative Biology issued a statement saying, "Gabe was a passionate ecologist, field biologist, and advocate for diverse voices in science. We all face a world that is less bright for this loss."
Cartel violence is fairly rampant in Sonora, and a war is raging between two of the cartels over the fentanyl and meth trade there. As InSight Crime reported in March, the Caborca Cartel and the Chapitos have been engaged in bloody confrontations along drug routes into Arizona, and seven people were killed in one such confrontation on March 20.
29 people were killed in a bloody battle between a cartel and the military in January in Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, which borders Sonora to the south.
Civilians are sometimes victims as well, as the AP notes. Nine U.S. citizens — three women and six children — were killed in an ambush attack in November 2019 in Sonora. The women were later identified as being part of a polygamist Mormon sect that was living in Mexico at the time.
Top image via AskaCABotanist/Twitter