Surrounded by the millions of monarch butterflies that Mexican environmental activist Homero Gomez Gonzalez fought to protect until his mysterious death, relatives and friends paid tribute to him Thursday.
Gomez Gonzalez’s sudden disappearance two weeks ago had sparked an outcry in Mexico, an increasingly violent country where activists are routinely threatened, harmed or killed as a result of their work.
Gomez Gonzalez, who worked passionately to protect a Mexican forest where monarch butterflies spend the winter, suffered head trauma as well as drowning, authorities announced Thursday night, potentially adding weight to the fears that he was murdered.
Even before the announcement, relatives of Gomez Gonzalez speculated his death wasn’t accidental.
“Something strange is happening, because they’re finishing off all the activists, the people who are doing something for society,” the dead man’s brother, Amado Gomez, said Thursday at the funeral.
Gomez Gonzalez’s body was discovered Wednesday in a holding pond near the mountain forest reserve that he had long protected. Michoacan state prosecutors said that an initial review indicated a drowning and found no signs of trauma, but their latest statement said more detailed autopsy results produced evidence of a head injury.
Authorities gave no other information on the injury and did not say how it might have been inflicted. They said an investigation continued.
Grinding poverty and gang violence fuel twin threats to the butterfly reserve — illegal logging and encroaching plantations of avocados. The latter is the only legal crop that provides a decent income in this region.
Gomez Gonzalez had spent a decade working as an activist, though he became best known for posting mesmerizing videos of the black and orange insects on social media, urging Mexicans to treasure the El Rosario reserve, a world heritage site.
His brother said Gomez Gonzalez, an engineer, was so compelled to do something after the number of butterflies dropped dramatically that he eventually gave up his job to work on projects aimed at protecting them.
“This was his passion,” his brother said. “He loved promoting the butterflies, filming them, researching them.”
He also worked to persuade about 260 fellow communal land owners that they should replant trees on land cleared for corn plots. By local accounts, he managed to reforest about 150 hectares (370 acres) of previously cleared land.
Like other places in the world, increasingly scarce water also plays a role in the conflict. Gomez Gonzalez and other communal land owners had asked the nearby town of Angangueo for payments in return for water they receive from clear mountain streams that survive only because the forests are protected.
“A lot of the communal landowners fear that with his death, the forests are finished,” Amado Gomez said.
“I would like to ask the authorities to do their job and do more to protect activists like my brother, because lately in Mexico a lot of activists have died,” he said. “With his death, not only my family lost a loved one; but the whole world, and the monarch butterfly and the forests lost, too.”
London-based Global Witness counted 15 killings of environmental activists in Mexico in 2017 and 14 in 2018. In an October 2019 report, Amnesty International said that 12 had been killed in the first nine months of that year.
Millions of monarchs come to the forests of Michoacan and other nearby areas after making the 3,400-mile (5,500-kilometer) migration from the United States and Canada.
They need healthy tree cover to protect them from rain and cold weather.
Reuters contributed to this report.