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Mexico: Forest guardian suffered head trauma and drowning

OCAMPO – An anti-logging activist prominent in efforts to protect a Mexican forest where monarch butterflies spend the winter suffered a head trauma as well as drowning, authorities announced Thursday night, potentially adding weight to the fears of family and other activists that he was murdered.

Even before the announcement, relatives of Homero Gómez González speculated his death wasn't accidental and said bad things are happening to human rights and environmental activists in Mexico, and people are afraid.

“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.

The body was discovered Wednesday in a holding pond near the mountain forest reserve that Gómez González long protected. Michoacan state prosecutors had said a few hours later 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, suggesting the case wasn't considered an accident.

The threadbare clothes of the mourners and the few candles and simple floral arrangements at Gómez Gonzalez’s funeral underlined the tough background of the struggle being played out in the butterflies’ winter nesting grounds, where the creatures shelter in the tall pine and fir forests.

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.

For the last decade, Gómez Gonzàlez fought to keep loggers out of the reserve, leading marches, demonstrations and anti-logging patrols. He tried to persuade the government to increase the meager stipend that local farmers receive for preserving trees.

He also worked to convince 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. Gómez Gonzàlez 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.

His death has sparked fears among fellow who didn’t have his education and public speaking skills.

“A lot of the communal land owners fear that with his death, the forests are finished," said Amado Gómez.

“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.”

International organizations have drawn attention to attacks on environmental activists and conservationists in Mexico in recent years.

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.

On Thursday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador described Gómez Gonzàlez's death as “regrettable” and “painful.”

“It's part of what leads us to apply ourselves more every day to guarantee peace and tranquility in the country,” López Obrador said. There were 35,588 homicides in Mexico in 2019, a new record, but a total that rose at a lower annual rate than recent years.

The activist's relatives had reported him missing Jan. 14, after not seeing him since the previous evening at a traditional celebration.

His body was found in a small agricultural reservoir in Ocampo, state prosecutor Adrián López Solís said. The pond is approximately 32 feet square and 20 feet deep, but only about half full of water, and is on land adjoining property where Gómez González attended the party.

Prosecutors said Thursday night that robbery appeared not to be a potential motive, since almost $500 in cash was found on his body. López Solís also said earlier that relatives had received a ransom call demanding money, but an investigation determined it was not credible and just an attempt to extort money.

While the circumstances of the death remained unclear, Greenpeace Mexico issued a statement calling it a “murder.”

“We condemn the fact that defending the land, natural resources and biodiversity converts activists into targets for threats, persecution and the cowardly act of taking their lives,” the group said.

Activists in Mexico said the death could be related to disputes over illegal logging, water or income from visitors' fees to the El Rosario butterfly reserve. Gómez González was the head of the reserve's management council.

López Obrador raised criminality surrounding illegal logging. “It's tied to criminal organizations and we're working on this," he said.

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.

Mexico has clamped down on illegal logging, which was once a major threat to the reserves but which has fallen to about one-third last year's level. But there have been reports of increased “salvage” logging of supposedly sick trees.

Orley Taylor, an ecology professor at the University of Kansas and director of Monarch Watch, said it wasn't immediately clear what impact Gómez González's death would have on conservation efforts in the reserve.

“There are increasing pressures on the forest from both the illegal loggers and the avocado growers and possibly the gangs that extort protection from various parties in the region,” Taylor said. "This dynamic is widely known, but how to deal with these threats to the forests, residents and monarchs will be a challenge for the (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve), its residents and local and regional authorities.