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Jan-Albert HootsenMarch 09, 2020
Following, carefully, in his father’s footsteps—Homero Gómez in El Rosario. Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen.Following, carefully, in his father’s footsteps—Homero Gómez in El Rosario. Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen.

Homero Gómez treads carefully with every step he takes along a muddy path on the slope of this mountain in the central Mexican state of Michoacán. The silence of the surrounding pine trees is only ever so often broken by the rustle of the thousands of tiny orange butterflies that flutter gently around him as he moves deeper into the forest.

“It’s a sunny day today, so the butterflies will come down from the trees to look for water,” Mr. Gómez tells America, as he barely sidesteps a small, wet spot on the path filled with the insects. “They almost form a sort of tapestry on the floor. If you don’t watch out, you can step on a dozen of them.”

It is a truly extraordinary sight, one that attracts thousands of visitors each year to the El Rosario reserve. Tourists come to gasp at one of nature’s most unique phenomena: the yearly mass migration of millions of monarch butterflies. Every year, the tiny creatures travel thousands of miles from Canada and the United States to just a handful of mountain tops here in Michoacán, some 150 miles west of Mexico City.

Monarchs migrate in such huge numbers that conservationists can only approximate a butterfly count by measuring the surface they cover. As they land on fir trees, the sheer weight of thousands of butterflies bends and even breaks branches.

“The butterflies are everything to us,” explained Mr. Gómez, 19. “Our ancestors thought they represented the returning souls of the dead. They are crucial to our economy. They create jobs in tourism; they are the foundation of our community.”

“The butterflies are everything to us. Our ancestors thought they represented the returning souls of the dead. They create jobs in tourism; they are the foundation of our community.”

But a shadow hangs over the community. On Feb. 1, Mr. Gómez’s father, Homero Gómez González, was found dead in a well, not far from the reserve. He had disappeared two weeks earlier, on Jan. 13, after attending a religious festival in the nearby town of El Soldado. A massive search operation, joined by hundreds of members of the community, began after he went missing, ending in the tragic discovery.

But even before the community of El Rosario could come to terms with what happened, Raúl Hernández, a tourist guide from another nearby reserve, was found dead. Authorities found stab wounds on his body.

Both murders came as a huge shock for El Rosario, an ejido, or communal land, worked by residents who share resources and profits, but the death of Mr. Gómez González rocked the community to its core.

The 50-year-old was a beloved figure locally. A portly man with a memorable moustache and a knack for visuals, he was one of the region’s best-known environmental activists. A lifelong advocate for butterfly preservation, he gained fame in Mexico and beyond for spectacular videos on social media, in which he would passionately promote the defense of the region’s natural resources to ensure the butterflies’ continued existence.

That existence has increasingly come under pressure in recent years. Climate patterns altered by global warming threaten to make the insects’ migration to Mexico more difficult, as does the widespread disappearance of milkweed—a crucial source of food for the butterflies en route to Mexico—and the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the United States. Monarch populations have recently dwindled to the point where locals fear they could disappear forever.

Homero Gómez González took to social media, traveled to Canada and Europe to raise funds for conservation and organized nightly patrols to combat illegal logging. But his activities made him a target.

Mr. Gómez González became most famous, however, for his campaigns to combat illegal logging in El Rosario, one of four parcels that comprise the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, as the larger region is called.

Mr. Gómez González took to social media, traveled to Canada and Europe to raise funds for conservation and organized nightly patrols to combat illegal logging. But his activities made him a target. He was frequently threatened by local politicians and criminals who backed illegal loggers.

“My father was well-loved in the community. He laughed a lot; he liked to spend time with people,” his son told America. When speaking of his father, his voice softens. “He did things for the community that no one else did, to protect the forest and the butterflies. He was a real community organizer, which also caused tensions. He never told me or my family specifically when he was threatened, but we knew that criminals didn’t like him.”

One month after the two murders, it is still unclear who might be behind them. Michoacán state authorities initially said Mr. Gómez González’s death was the result of an accident. An autopsy, however, revealed blunt head trauma, strongly suggesting he may have been murdered.

The activists’ deaths have made inhabitants of El Rosario nervous. Those working at the reserve fear the murders may negatively affect tourism in the region, vital to the local economy, while unanswered questions about who may have been behind them linger.

In a country already mired in bloodshed fueled by organized crime, environmentalists are among the hardest hit of all rights defenders. In 2018 alone, 21 were killed.

A recent visit to the reserve seemed to confirm that tourism was down at El Rosario. At the entrance to the reserve, where small wooden shacks house restaurants and shops, few businesses were open, and only a handful of tourists were encountered panting up the steep mountain path to see the butterflies.

“I think the murders may have scared off tourists from coming. We’re worried; Homero was very important to the community. He knew how to organize people and he attracted tourists. He was well-known,” said Roxana Contreras, a young woman baking tortillas at a small iron stove in one of the few restaurants that opened its doors. “We get questions from the tourists about what happened.”

A little further up the road, past a large, wooden image of an orange monarch butterfly, Miguel Ángel Cruz chatted with some elderly tourist guides. He currently coordinates the ejido and conservation efforts at the reserve.

“The loss of Homero came as a great blow for the community, including to me personally,” he said. “Although he had not been a coordinator for El Rosario for a while, he made sure the reserve had an international image, and he organized all kinds of projects to protect the butterflies. It will be hard for us without him, but we have to keep working.”

Whatever the motive behind the killing, Mr. Gómez González is not the first environmental activist to be killed in Mexico over the past few years. According to human rights groups, environmental activists are particularly vulnerable to violence. In a country already mired in bloodshed fueled by organized crime, environmentalists are among the hardest hit of all rights defenders. In 2018 alone, 21 were killed.

In Michoacán, few are willing to speak openly about the challenges of defending the environment in a state where organized crime has terrorized the civilian population for years, and where gangs have battled each other and the state for control over drug trafficking and other illegal trades. With almost 1,500 murders, 2019 was the most violent year in the state’s modern history.

“It’s difficult to know who or what killed Homero Gómez because violence is so omnipresent here, even if life at the reserve seems quiet at first glance,” one local government official said. He asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety. “But in Michoacán, anything can hit you in an instant. Silence is a commodity here.”

Those lingering questions and the constant threat of violence appear not to be stopping Mr. Homer Gómez’s son from following in his footsteps.

“There are a lot of risks involved in doing what my father did, but no one else had the capacity for community organization that he had,” said the younger Mr. Gómez. “I want to learn how to do the same thing, although it’ll be difficult. My dad knew everything, I just barely started learning about the forest and the butterflies a few years ago.”

He sighed. “It’s a big responsibility. There’s only one El Rosario.”

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