At midday on Jan. 13, 2020, Homero Gómez González, one of Mexico’s most respected conservationists, attended his final meeting. Like most of his appointments, this one was about butterflies. For years, Gómez had been the leading defender of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a collection of sanctuaries in Michoacán, about a two-hour drive west of Mexico City, that attracts swarms of orangeand-black butterflies migrating south for the winter, some of them the size of a small dinner plate. The migratory phenom enon, recognized by the United Nations as a cultural heritage worthy of protection, draws millions of monarchs from as far as Canada and Alaska and, in pre-pandemic times, some 300,000 tourists.
That day in January, the middle of butterfly season, Gómez was visiting the monarch sanctuary in a village called El Rosario. In most ways, attendees recall the meeting as unremarkable, focused on the sanctuary’s finances, visitors, and tree plantings. If there was one odd thing, they say, it was that Gómez’s phone was buzzing the entire time. They’d seen the butterfly activist, a onetime community president, get lots of calls from tourist agencies, politicians, and journalists. But this barrage seemed relentless. Eventually, Gómez picked up.
Whoever was on the other end of the line seemed to want Gómez to attend the final day of a local fair in the town of El Soldado, according to people who overheard the call, including Miguel Angel Cruz, the current community president. The caller told Gómez the fair was an important local event, noting the horse racing, gambling, alcohol, and many local politicians sure to attend. “Yes, yes, of course I’m going,” Cruz and others heard him reply.
After the meetings finished, Gómez drove the 40 minutes to the fairgrounds, arriving at around 5 p.m., according to his family. He parked his red Seat Ibiza next to a bunch of similar cars in a field near the racetrack. The day was overcast but mild. The grounds sprawled with flapping white tents and hordes of people held back from the sandy track by white metal barriers. Jockeys paraded the paddocks while their horses nickered and snorted. Among the bobbing Stetson hats, jeans, chunky belt buckles, and botas picudas (pointy boots), Gómez wore a white guayabera shirt, grayish suit trousers, and brown shoes. He was 50 years old, chunky, and square-headed, with a thick shoe-brush mustache bristling beneath his ski-jump nose.
Gómez was famous in these circles. Locals beckoned and greeted him wherever he went, attendees say. They included the politician Elizabeth Guzmán Vilchis, who was hosting a lunch for influential local officials. As the afternoon crept into the evening, the music and the crowd swelled, but Gómez kept schmoozing amicably. “We danced, drank, joked, and laughed,” Guzmán says. “There was no tension between anybody.” She last saw him at 8 p.m., when she took her kids home. Others say they spotted him in one of the tents about an hour later. After that, he was never seen alive again.
The news of Gómez’s disappearance spread quickly.
There were articles in the national press, followed by accounts from the BBC, NPR, and the Washington Post. Experts speculated that whatever had happened to him was tied to his activism.
Rebeca Valencia, Gómez’s wife, had always been ill at ease about her husband’s work. Now she felt paralyzed with fear. In the village of Rincón de San Luis, several miles away from the sanctuary, she stared at her phone. There were no messages, no signs of life.
Valencia, her round face puffy and her eyes brimming with tears, had good reason to worry. The state of Michoacán was rich with international trafficking routes, exploitable pine and fir forests, and the billion-dollar avocado trade. And for the past several years, the state had been caught in a brutal war. On one side was the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, Mexico’s fastest-growing criminal organization. On the other, a collection of local groups defending their home territory under the banner of United Cartels. The conflict had become so violent that many politicians and police had stopped fighting and joined forces with the cartels. It was often difficult to separate the mafia from the state.
For people who tried to disrupt this collusion, there were always consequences. “There was plenty of friction between him and powerful people,” says Amado, Gómez’s brother.
Valencia knew her husband frequently had to meet with various bigwigs. He’d often told her they were his friends, but she was skeptical. “They were the type of friends, I thought, who could stab him in the back at any moment,” she says.
Still, when a loved one disappears, generally you have to go to the authorities. Three hours from the sanctuary by car, in the state capital of Morelia, Michoacán’s state prosecutor’s office took up the case. The state attorney assigned to police, the national guard, and even anti-kidnapping specialists and sniffer-dog units to hunt for Gómez. Within days, 53 members of the local police force were brought in for questioning. Meanwhile, search parties formed with locals and volunteers, about 1,000 people in total, scouring the surrounding woods and hills for traces of the activist.
His eldest son, Homero Jr., became one of the leaders of these 50-man brigades. Tall, dark-haired, and thick-set like his father, he started searching from as early as 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., when it began to get dark. The work was tiring and desperate. Much of the forest was located at a high altitude. The winter sun stung, and the steep slopes and boggy roads slowed progress. Among the fir trees, the monarchs’ flapping wings whirred like a giant air conditioner.
Homero Jr. had grown up in these woods. He’d spent many mornings in a fog of butterflies filming and uploading videos of his father to promote the butterfly reserve. Now the creatures seemed to speak only to his father’s absence.
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