MEXICO CITY — Homero Gómez Gozález, a former logger who became one of central Mexico’s most prominent defenders of the region’s monarch butterfly population, was found dead Wednesday.
Gómez González disappeared Jan. 13, sending a shock wave through communities of environmental conservationists in the United States and Mexico. Local authorities created search teams and the state attorney general launched an investigation. Almost immediately, his fellow activists suspected loggers and criminal groups whom Gómez González may have upset in his conservation efforts.
Gómez González was found floating in a well near the butterfly sanctuary he had spent decades working to preserve, according to Miguel Angel Cruz, who succeeded Gómez González as commissioner of the community of El Rosario. The cause of death is not yet known.
In an interview with The Washington Post last month at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly preserve, Gómez González spoke about his efforts — and the challenges he faced as he tried to protect the migrating butterflies.
“It’s been a fight to maintain it,” he said. “And it hasn’t been easy.”
For as long as anyone can remember, millions of monarch butterflies have spent their winters on a few remote hilltops in the Mexican state of Michoacán. But logging in the region nearly destroyed their habitat, a convergence of geography and landscape that may be impossible to replicate.
The Mexican government eventually outlawed logging in the area, giving new life to the monarch butterflies, even as it created enormous tension between local loggers and conservationists. Between 2005 and 2006, 461 hectares in the region were lost to illegal logging.
Gómez González spoke openly about growing up in a logging family that was initially skeptical about the idea of conservation, even as it marveled at the yearly arrival of the butterflies.
“We were afraid that if we had to stop logging, it would send us all into poverty,” he told The Post.
But he came around to the idea of the sanctuary, in part as he saw the potential for tourism. He began working with conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund and scientists from around the world. He tweeted videos of himself in a cloud of monarchs, encouraging visitors to witness the magic. He posted the last one hours before he disappeared.
After he vanished, his family received calls from people claiming to have kidnapped him, demanding ransom payments.
More than 61,000 people are missing in Mexico, authorities said this month. The majority are suspected to be victims of criminal organizations. In Gómez González’s case, his neighbors and colleagues were left to guess at what might have happened to him.
“I have faith that we will find him. I want us to find him alive,” said Michoacán Gov. Silvano Aureoles Conejo earlier this week.
Authorities found Gómez González’s body floating in a well in the community of El Soldado de Ocampo, not far from the butterfly sanctuary. Authorities told local media outlets that his body did not show any obvious signs of violence. But Gómez González’s friends didn’t have any details.
“For now, we don’t know anything,” said Angel Cruz.
The Michoacán attorney general’s office confirmed the death, but it would not comment on the investigation into what happened.
“Since he was young, Homero has been behind the sanctuary,” said Gloria Tavera, an official with Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas.
But Tavera, in an interview last week, said she didn’t think his disappearance was connected to his activism.
“We think they are independent things,” she said.