Bad News at the Butterflies: Reactions to the El Rosario Murders

While it’s only 20 km away as the butterfly flies, it’s about a two hour drive from our place in the State of Mexico to the entry of the El Rosario Sanctuary in Michoacán.

Mexico’s monarch butterfly sanctuaries made international news last month. It began with the disappearance of the administrator of the El Rosario sanctuary, Homero Gómez Gonzalez, on January 13, followed by the appearance of his lifeless body two weeks later. The bad news kept coming when a second body, that of Raul Hernandez, was also found in the area. Press accounts represented the victims as martyred environmental activists. Commentators from far away contributed to this interpretation of events.

One insider offered a counter-narrative in an article in the Guardian:

“(I)t’s easy for a leader to become abusive with the community’s income,” said a Michoacán conservationist who was familiar with Gómez and the sanctuary but did not want to be named. The conservationist insisted it was still safe for butterfly guardians to do their work. “He was an outspoken person, he drew a lot of attention to himself. I don’t know why he was killed, but because of the non-transparent management of the ejido he had a lot of enemies.”

Raising Butterflies in the Garden author Brenda Dziedzic was on her way to the sanctuaries when the news broke. She’s visited every year since 2009 and last season she brought a group from her home state of Michigan to Macheros. This February she organized a second Michigan group and another one from Texas. Last night in my living room, I asked Brenda and her Michigan friends for their reactions to the news.

“It was just not accurate,” Brenda began. Articles made it seem like both bodies were found in the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary itself. (Neither one was.) “It put fear into people who were planning on coming,” Brenda said. The inaccuracy, she thought, extended to the representation of Gomez as an environmentalist. “I heard that maybe he was in it just to promote himself.” Brenda was financially hurt by a last-minute cancelation in her group. She shook her head, “I wouldn’t bring my daughter and my sister to a dangerous situation.”

Getting organized for a horse feed giveaway on February 11, 2020, in Macheros, State of Mexico.

Gary Urick of Ypsilanti added, “You’re never safe anywhere all the time. We can go to Detroit and run into the wrong people. Our trip is not crossing the paths of a destructive element; we’re on a different trajectory.” He went on to say that on this, his second visit, he’d felt even more welcomed by the community of Macheros. Their group visited schools and organized a second annual feed giveaway to support the working horses of the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary.

Marie Urick piped in that reading Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor’s comments had reassured her before their trip. In a February 2 message to the Dplex listserv, Taylor wrote that, “While the recent deaths… signal that are conflicts within the communities associated with El Rosario… there have been no indications tourists have been or are likely to be targets of violence at the overwintering sites.”

Rochester resident Jane Giblin countered that she hadn’t been worried about safety in Mexico, “because I’ve traveled to other places like Argentina, Guatemala and Ecuador.” After those experiences, she said, “I didn’t expect it to be so easy to get here.” And that while she knew she’d enjoy the company of her fellow members of the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association, she’d been pleasantly surprised by her conversations with other guests at the B&B: “I didn’t expect to meet so many kindred spirits.”

Some have proposed a boycott of Mexican avocados as a way to protest the recent deaths in Michoacán. We do not support this idea. A boycott will only hurt already beleaguered farmers. If you want help decrease suffering in Mexico, support immigration reform, gun control, and less punitive drug policies in the United States.

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