Tragic Demise of a Californian Scholar Amidst Research Expedition in Mexico

by Michael Nguyen
Gabriel Trujillo's tragic death

For a period spanning four years, Gabriel Trujillo relentlessly journeyed through the vast expanses of the United States and ventured south into Mexico, driven by his curiosity about a blooming shrub known as the common buttonbush.

A 31-year-old Ph.D. scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Trujillo was intrigued by the plant’s adaptability to diverse climates across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. He was passionate about discovering its evolutionary secrets to shed light on potential strategies for future habitat conservation and restoration.

Sadly, his pursuit of knowledge was abruptly terminated last week in Mexico. Trujillo’s father reported that his son was fatally shot seven times. On June 22, Mexican authorities found his body in the Sonora state, northwest Mexico, after his fiancée raised the alarm about his disappearance.

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Trujillo crossed the Arizona border into Nogales on June 17. Following his conversation with his father and his fiancée, Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos, he ventured out for plant collection, promising to return to his Airbnb. Alarm bells rang when Trujillo, who usually communicated with Cruz-de Hoyos several times a day, didn’t respond to her calls and messages, and his Airbnb hosts confirmed his belongings were untouched.

Worried, Cruz-de Hoyos immediately flew to Mexico. Authorities located his body 100 kilometers away from his Airbnb, still in his SUV, on June 22. As she identified him, his father hurriedly boarded a flight from Michigan to Mexico. Both are seeking answers about the tragic incident from the U.S. and Mexican governments.

“Apparently, he was in the wrong place,” Anthony Trujillo told The Big Big News. The Sonora state prosecutor’s office confirmed the ongoing investigation but refrained from classifying Trujillo’s death as a homicide. Despite warnings from his family about the dangerous conditions in Sonora, Trujillo was committed to his research.

Sonora shares a significant border with the U.S. and serves as a crucial channel for drug smuggling, particularly fentanyl, as well as human trafficking, cash, and weapon smuggling between the U.S. and the Sinaloa state.

The conflict between rival drug cartels in Sonora has escalated the violence, claiming innocent victims. In 2019, cartel gunmen murdered three U.S. women and six children near the Sonora and Chihuahua states border.


Trujillo, with strong ties to various U.S. states and Indigenous territories in Mexico, shared a unique bond with the adaptable buttonbush. He dedicated years to its study and specimen collection, often accompanied by Cruz-de Hoyos, a fellow researcher on widespread tree mortality.

Trujillo aimed to reconnect with his Opata Indigenous roots in the dry, mountainous region of Sonora. His vision involved applying his research towards creating a garden in Mexico and utilizing the buttonbush for wetland restoration.

Trujillo and Cruz-de Hoyos, who shared Nahua Indigenous lineage, planned to interweave their identities and scientific pursuits. They had plans of starting a family, had bought a home together, and were anticipating a wedding later this year. Trujillo’s trip to Mexico was meant to be his last before they began trying to conceive.

Cruz-de Hoyos now plans to commemorate Trujillo with a Danza Azteca ceremony in the San Francisco Bay Area after his father holds a Catholic funeral Mass in Michigan.


Born in Arizona on March 4, 1992, Trujillo grew up in a blended family in Michigan, referring to themselves as the “Mexican Brady Bunch.” A recipient of the Ford Foundation fellowship, he was on course to complete his Ph.D. at Berkeley by 2025.

His love for the outdoors was evident even in his interactions with his six nieces and a nephew. Anthony Trujillo fondly remembers his son describing himself as a stapler for a school project, drawing a parallel between a stapler’s function and Gabriel’s role in binding people together.

Trujillo is survived by his father, fiancée, five siblings, six nieces, and a nephew. His mother, Gloria, passed away from cancer ten years ago.

Report by Sánchez from Mexico City.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Gabriel Trujillo’s tragic death

Who was Gabriel Trujillo?

Gabriel Trujillo was a 31-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, who was conducting research on the common buttonbush, a plant native to Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

What was the purpose of Gabriel Trujillo’s research?

Trujillo was interested in understanding why the common buttonbush thrived in a wide range of climates. He aimed to use this knowledge to inform future habitat conservation and restoration efforts.

Where and when did Gabriel Trujillo die?

Gabriel Trujillo was found dead in the state of Sonora, northwest Mexico, on June 22. His death occurred during his research expedition to the region.

How did Gabriel Trujillo die?

Gabriel Trujillo was shot seven times, according to his father. His body was discovered in his SUV, roughly 62 miles away from his Airbnb in Sonora, Mexico.

What has been the response to Gabriel Trujillo’s death?

The Sonora state prosecutor’s office confirmed that it is investigating Trujillo’s death, but has not officially labeled it as a homicide. Both Trujillo’s father and his fiancée, Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos, are seeking answers from the U.S. and Mexican governments.

What was Gabriel Trujillo’s background?

Born in Arizona, Trujillo’s family moved to Michigan during his childhood. He attended a boarding school in New Mexico and earned his undergraduate degree from Lake Forest College in Illinois. Trujillo was on track to complete his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2025.

What were Gabriel Trujillo’s future plans?

Trujillo hoped to apply his research findings to establish a garden in Mexico using the buttonbush for wetland restoration. Personally, he was planning to marry his fiancée, Roxanne Cruz-de Hoyos, and they were considering starting a family.

More about Gabriel Trujillo’s tragic death

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Mariah L. June 30, 2023 - 10:11 am

This is absolutely heartbreaking. He was so young and had a promising future ahead of him. The authorities need to step up and solve this case ASAP.

lindafrommichigan June 30, 2023 - 10:52 am

This young man was from Michigan, like me. Never thought I’d read such a story. He was doing such amazing work. My prayers go out to his family.

Julie321 June 30, 2023 - 11:12 am

so sad… he was going to start a family, how devastating for his fiancée. thoughts and prayers with the family and loved ones…

eco_sam June 30, 2023 - 11:56 am

so tragic, this guy was trying to help our planet n this is what happened. hope they find the culprits and make them pay.

Michael_j98 June 30, 2023 - 9:51 pm

man this is so messed up… Can’t believe something like this happened. RIP Gabriel, you were doing important work…


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