The mysterious death of a California student who traveled to Mexico for research

 On June 17, a doctoral student from the University of California crossed into Mexico with the intention of collecting a shrub in the state of Sonora. Five days later, he was found strangely dead in the van he was driving with seven bullet wounds.

Gabriel Trujillo, a student at the University of California in Berkeley, was found dead on June 22 in Sonora, Mexico. The man, 31, was in the northern Mexican state to collect plants for his doctoral research, when his girlfriend reported him missing.

Five days earlier, on June 17, Trujillo, who had already traveled to Mexico several times researching a shrub that inhabits North America, crossed the Arizona border into Nogales.

His family had asked him not to make the trip to such a dangerous place as Sonora, a state that, until May, had registered 518 homicides, according to data from the Mexican government. However, Trujillo believed that the trip was crucial for his research.

On June 18, the researcher spoke with his father; and, the next morning, with his fiancée, Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos. Trujillo told his girlfriend that he would go out that day to collect plants and return to his Airbnb later.

However, as the hours passed and he did not answer her calls and multiple text messages, Cruz-de Hoyos became worried.

The girl was able to contact the Airbnb hosts, who said that his belongings were still at the place, but that he had not returned. At that point, Cruz-de Hoyos bought a plane ticket to travel to Mexico the next day and look for her fiancé herself.

Without mentioning the exact place, on June 22, the authorities informed Cruz-de-Hoyos that they had discovered Trujillo’s body dead inside the van he used to move around, about 62 miles from the Airbnb where he was staying, with seven bullet wounds.

Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos was the one who identified her fiancé’s body before the Mexican authorities while the student’s father, Anthony Trujillo, rushed to take a flight from Michigan to Sonora.

Since then, Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos and Anthony Trujillo have received little information about the tragedy and have asked for answers from the governments of the United States and Mexico.

“Obviously, he was in the wrong place,” Anthony Trujillo told The Associated Press (AP) agency on Thursday as he waited to board a flight back home with his son’s remains.

The AP quoted a statement from the Sonora state prosecutor’s office in which, without providing further details about what happened, it said it is analyzing evidence "to establish the facts, conditions and causes of death". On Friday, Univision Noticias tried to locate the aforementioned statement without success.

Gabriel Trujillo was considered a scholar in his area of research. The plant he researched, buttonbush shrub, had presence in Canada, Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, New Mexico, California and indigenous lands of northern and southern Mexico.

Trujillo spent years studying it and collecting specimens, often along with Cruz-de Hoyos, postdoctoral fellow who researches widespread tree mortality, in a large red van they bought together.

“We were committed to dedicating our lives to environmental conservation and environmental research,” Cruz-de Hoyos told AP. “We felt that indigenous hands have cared for these lands since time immemorial.”

Attracted by Sonora, Trujillo hoped to connect with his indigenous roots through ancestral lands of group in dry and mountainous region. Ultimately, he wanted to apply his research to build a garden in Mexico and use buttonbush shrub for wetland restoration. His planned trip included three potential sites to make a final decision.

For decades, Sonora has been a key route for drug smuggling, as well as migrants, cash and weapons between United States and state of Sinaloa, and infamous cartel of same name, further south.

Sonora has long been critical territory for Mexico’s drug cartels and in recent years those rivalries have increased level of violence and, at times, left civilian casualties. Cartel gunmen killed three American women and six of children of LeBaron family near border of states of Sonora and Chihuahua in 2019. Americans lived in communities founded decades ago by branch of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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