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 orange-and-black butterflies migrating south for the winter, some of them the size of a small dinner plate. The migratory phenomenon, 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 afternoon crept into 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.
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