San Marcos Station:

Silent witness to the enslavement and attempted genocide of Mexico’s Yaqui Indians

John Pint

The Ghosts of San Marcos

Train Station Photo: John Pint; Yaqui Girl:; small images: John Kenneth Turner


While paging through an archeological guide to western Mexico, I came upon a cryptic reference to the long-abandoned train station near the small town of San Marcos, Jalisco, located 80 kilometers west of Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. It said, “Yaquis were sold here (as slaves) for 25 centavos a head… Around the station were located concentration camps where hundreds of native people died of hunger and disease.”

I was surprised, to say the least, and, of course, curious to know more about what went on in this train station, so I asked my Mexican friends if they ever heard of a connection between a persecution of the Yaquis and San Marcos.

“Yes, said conservationist Rodrigo Orozco. “There’s a famous book on the Yaquis. It’s actually a translation of a book in English called Barbarous Mexico by John Kenneth Turner.”

"Barbarous Mexico" by Turner

Naturally, I turned to the Internet to learn more about the book, but I never dreamed that in two minutes I would be able to download the entire text into my computer. Barbarous Mexico, it seems was published in 1911 and is now in the public domain. Yes, I found the complete book, free of charge at Google Books, but two weeks later it was no longer listed. Apparently, however, it is still available as a free Ebook from Barnes & Noble.

Barbarous Mexico is not an attack upon the Mexican people, but an exposé of the atrocities committed against many of them by President Porfirio Diaz during 34 years of repeated "unopposed reelection." One of the worst schemes of the Diaz government, says Turner, was the provocation of the Yaqui Indians to rebellion in order to clear them out of Sonora so their land—rich for both mines and agriculture—could be sold to Americans.

The Yaquis were put on boats at Guaymas and shipped to San Blas, where they were forced to walk over 300 kilometers to San Marcos. Here were large concentration camps where the Yaqui families were broken up. Individuals were then sold inside the station and packed into train cars which took them to Veracruz. Another boat ride brought them to Progreso in Yucatán, from which they were taken to the plantation which would be their tomb.

John Kenneth Turner first learned about this business in 1908, from several Mexicans locked up in the Los Angeles County jail.
“What are you accused of?” he asked them.
“Invading a friendly country,” they replied.
“What country is that?” he asked.
“Mexico,” they answered.

Turner inquired as to why they would want to invade their own country.
“Because the constitution has been suspended and awful things are happening.”

When he asked for concrete examples, the jailed Mexicans told him that great numbers of people were being bought and sold like cattle and forced to work on sisal plantations until they dropped dead—even though Mexico had abolished slavery many years before.

Scene in a Yaqui "bullpen" on the exile road from San Blas to San Marcos -- From Barbarous Mexico by John K. Turner

Photo by John Kenneth Turner

Turner was determined to see for himself and traveled to Mérida where he passed himself off as a rich man anxious to invest in the lucrative henequen hemp business.

Yaqui Slaves of Yucatan

Here he discovered that the Yaquis were indeed slaves in the worst sense of the word, beaten bloody every morning at role call, forced to work in the blazing sun from dawn to dusk on little food, locked up every night, and beaten again if they failed to cut and trim at least 2000 henequen leaves per day. The Yaqui women, separated from their families, were forced to “marry” Chinamen and every baby born on the plantation was worth up to $1000 cash to the owner. At least two-thirds of the Yaquis arriving in Yucatan were dead before the end of the first year of such treatment.

Turner was able to interview some of the slaves. One man with a baby on his arm, said he was plowing in his field when the soldiers came. “They did not give me time to unhitch my oxen,” he said.
“Where is the mother of your baby?” inquired Turner.
“Dead in San Marcos,” replied the young father. “That three weeks’ tramp over the mountains killed her.”


Indeed, Turner’s informants agreed that “the crudest part of the trail was between San Blas and San Marcos “where women with babies fell down on the roadside, never to get up again.”

Captured Yaquis on the exile road -- From Barbarous Mexico by John K. Turner

Photo by John Kenneth Turner


Those who grew rich from the atrocities of those days were, of course, Porfirio Diaz, his relatives and cronies, but the book points out that more than half the sisal was shipped to the USA and Turner accuses wealthy families such as the Hearsts, the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims of having profited the most from the expropriated lands of the Yaquis and Mayas as well as the “Flaming Hell” of the henequen plantations.

The Yaqui people were famed for being hard-working and strong. Between 1904 and 1909, around 15,000 of them were rounded up, forced along the tortuous route to Yucatán and enslaved. Despite their extraordinary strength, most of them died within the first year on the plantations, raising questions of whether they were the victims of genocide.

Slave Mother and Child with Henequen Plant -- From Barbarous Mexico by John K. Turner.

Photo by John Kenneth Turner

The San Marcos train station ought to house a memorial to these Yaquis, as it is probably the only remains of a concentration camp still standing in Mexico. Instead, there is not even a plaque commemorating the pain and sorrow suffered here, only the stark shell of the empty building and a silent grove of tall eucalyptus trees where the Indians were once penned up.

On the Streets of San Marcos
Curious as to whether the people of San Marcos might know more details about their notorious train station, my wife Susy and I paid a visit the town and started asking questions in the plaza. We got some curious looks and a few hazy recollections of grandparents having mentioned such a subject and were eventually taken to the home of Livier Díaz, a teacher who said she was surprised that a foreigner seemed to know more about the history of her town than she did.

Livier Diaz then took us to the home of her father, 80-year-old Juan Díaz who told us he remembered stories of “false promises made by President Porfirio Días” in those times and that those who took the bait “were rewarded by becoming slaves in the henequen plantations.” And, yes, there were indeed rumors that Yaqui Indians had been sold in the San Marcos train station.

Hoping to find something in writing about this subject, we went off to the town’s church where the local priest told us that any records that might help us were not kept in San Marcos but would be found at Etzatlán.

San Marcos has long been known for its excellent pottery.

San Marcos, a.k.a. Chiltic, Chistic, etc.
Next we visited the local library. We asked for information on the history of San Marcos and (to my surprise, I must admit) a few minutes later the librarian handed us a stack of books and documents. We soon discovered how difficult it is to extract exact information about bygone events. For example, the articles before us stated that before the coming of the Spaniards, San Marcos had been called…, well, we found five versions of what it had been called: Chiltic, Chistic, Tzistic, Otallán and Otatlán; take your pick.
As for the information we sought, we found not a single mention of the word Yaqui in any of the ten Histories of San Marcos we examined. About all we could determine was that the train tracks did reach the town either in 1900 or 1901.


 Left: Juan Díaz and his daughter Livier help us search for information in San Marcos.

Right: Susy Pint and Livier Díaz scour documents in the San Marcos library.

We did, however, find one written reference suggesting that—in the early 1900’s—someone in San Marcos had objected to the government’s nefarious operations in the area. It seems that when the Revolution broke out in 1911, Porfirio Diaz immediately installed a military garrison at San Marcos and federal soldiers searched day and night in the area for rebels, without discovering that the biggest rebel of all, a certain Ramón Romero Paredes lived right in San Marcos itself, where he was plotting an attack against the garrison.

Ramón Romero's Nonchalant Escape
Unfortunately for the rebel, someone betrayed his presence to the authorities and soon the town was surrounded by troops, making it utterly impossible for anyone to slip away unnoticed. Romero, the story goes, was unperturbed by all this and remained calm. He disguised himself as a peon, with huaraches on his feet and a battered sombrero on his head. Smoking the cheapest kind of cigarette (cigarrillo de hoja) he slowly wandered over to the very officer in charge of his capture, to whom he offered a smoke. With an icy voice, the officer snarled, “Get lost and leave me alone.” Romero then walked right through the blockade and made his escape.


Hu-Dehart's Scholarly Overview of the Yaquis' Fate

A week after visiting the San Marcos library, I received a surprise from archeologist Rodrigo Esparza: a 23-page paper published by Duke University Press entitled Development and Rural Rebellion: Pacification of the Yaquis in the Late Porfiriato by Evelyn Hu-Dehart, a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. This document was a dispassionate study of the Yaquis’ fate in contrast to Turner’s passionate book, which is often called the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of slavery in early 20th century Mexico.

I discovered that Hu-Dehart confirmed the great majority of Turner’s claims, with the notable exception of his assertion that the Yaquis were essentially peaceful. “The Diaz government did not provoke the Yaqui rebellion, but inherited it,” says Hu-Dehart, who points out that the Yaquis inevitably sided with anyone fighting the authorities and refused to accept any deal giving them less than the one thing they wanted: complete autonomy in their lush corner of Sonora.

Interestingly, Hu-Dehart’s unemotional paper provides hard evidence for what might seem Turner’s most controversial accusation: that the government of Porfirio Diaz deliberately attempted the genocide of the Yaqui Indians. “The government is… disposed to exterminate all of you if you continue to rebel,” wrote General Lorenzo Torres to the chief of the Yaquis in 1908.

Hopefully, more information on the fate of the Yaquis at San Marcos will come to light as time goes by. Meanwhile, I suggest that people who find themselves in the area, perhaps visiting the Great Stone Balls of Ahualulco, the huge Palace of Ocomo at Oconahua or the Circular Pyramids of Teuchitlán, might like to stop at the train station, which is just off the main road, to reflect on the barbarous events which took place there and perhaps to wander in the beautiful eucalyptus grove. All other traces of the Yaquis’ passing have been obliterated, even their cemetery, but their decomposing bodies probably helped give life to those tall, proud trees and perhaps they are the best memorial of all to the innocent souls who were murdered at San Marcos.

How to Get to the San Marcos Train Station
You can reach San Marcos by taking highway 15 out of Guadalajara and following the signs for Ameca. After passing the large sugar refinery at Tala, turn right onto the road to Ahualulco and Etzatlán. Keep going west another twelve kilometers past Etzatlán to reach San Marcos. You’ll see the old train station on your left, 1.3 kilometers before reaching the town (GPS location: 13 Q 584314 2297864). Driving time is about an hour from the Guadalajara Periférico.
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