Tours of historic missions return after years of violence in Sonora

Visitors admire San Antonio  Paduano del Oquitoa mission in Oquitoa Sonora, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Sonora Tourismo.
Visitors admire San Antonio Paduano del Oquitoa mission in Oquitoa Sonora, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Sonora Turismo.

Touring the historic Spanish missions of the Sonoran border region is now possible again after years of violence in Mexico.

The Southwestern Mission Research Center has been doing tours of missions built by Father Kino since the 1970s, but in 2010 the center had to suspend them due to violence from gangs and warring drug cartels in Sonora, Mexico.

Four years later, the center is resuming the tours after the improved situation in Sonora.

The three-day tours take you from Tucson to several missions in Sonora including Cocóspera, San Ignacio, Magdalena, Tubutama, Atil, Oquitoa, Pitiquito and Caborca. The tour costs $495, which includes transportation, food and hotel, but the fare may increase in the future, according to Dale Brenneman, a spokesman with the Southwestern Mission Research Center.

The center is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that conducts the tours with scholars and researchers.

Tucsonan Sue DeArmond went on the Kino Mission Tour in November and says she never felt she was in any danger and loved connecting with the people of Sonora.

“The connection of the people of northern Sonora with Southern Arizona and vice versa was palpable. Many residents of the small villages talked to us about their children attending the University of Arizona, living in Tucson, or coming home for the holidays. It brought home again how connected we are,” says DeArmond.

Escalating violence in Sonora severely impacted tour participation at the end of the 2000s. The center held three tours in the spring and fall of each year in the early 2000s, but by 2010 they were only able to have one tour per season.

“Most of (the reports of violence) did not affect the areas we went into, but in the summer of 2010 there was a particular incident between Sáric and Tubutama in Sonora where several people were killed,” says Brenneman.

Members of the Beltran Leyva cartel ambushed Rival Sinaloa cartel members on the highway between the towns of Sáric and Tubutama. The ambush left 29 people dead.

A study by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography in 2006 reported 251 murders in the state of Sonora; that number jumped to 738 by 2010, averaging 27 murders per 100,000 residents. Across the border in Arizona, the murder rate was 6.4 per 100,000 residents in 2010, the report stated.

Violence in Sonora has dropped, but not drastically. In 2012 there were 526 murders statewide, down almost 30 percent from the 2010 high. Sonora has been the safest state that borders the U.S. in recent years. Most of the border states reported more than 1,000 murders in 2012.

“Maybe Mexico City is not so safe, but the rest of Mexico and other cities are very safe and wherever you choose to go is perfect,” reassures Maribel Maldonado, a spokeswoman for the Mexico Tourism Board.

“At no time did we feel uncomfortable or afraid on our trip.  Our tour leaders knew their material, individual residents and the territory. All in all, it was a great experience.  We are encouraging our friends to sign up for the spring trip,” says DeArmond.

The center’s Brenneman says the response to the tours resuming has been overwhelming. To book a reservation for the next tour, call him at 520-621– 6278 or email the center at tours@southwestmissions.org Some of the proceeds from the tours benefits mission preservation efforts and education outreach.

Brian Valencia is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at bvalencia@email.arizona.edu

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