Mexico’s indigenous Mazahua people, who live in the volcanic mountains west of Mexico City, have been categorically oppressed for centuries. Subjugated first by the Aztecs. Then by the Spaniards. And later, all but enslaved by the hacendados or wealthy ranchers.

Today, powerful crime groups like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the United Cartel have invaded Mazahua lands in the state of Michoacan to steal timber, fleece farmers, and push drugs in the villages.

The Mazahua have been marginalized and impoverished. Their unique language just about stamped out, and their ancestral way of life picked apart. But despite the tribulations, they do not go down without a fight, and there is one thing the Mazahua want to make very clear: You do not fuck with their butterflies.

When a recent spike in illegal logging threatened the health of the famous Monarch Butterfly Reserve and Biosphere—which sits partly within the Mazahua ejido [collective] called Crescencio Morales—the outraged villagers organized armed patrols in an effort to buck the black-market lumber racket and prevent widespread deforestation.

“For those of us who are at the forefront of the movement to keep strangers from cutting down our forest, to keep them from selling drugs [in our villages], to not allow kidnappings—there is a risk of dying every day,” said ejido leader Erasmo Álvarez, who coordinated the first patrols about a year ago, in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“On several occasions we have been attacked in the forest by armed people who were cutting down and stealing wood,” said Álvarez. He described the attackers as “criminals who want to control our lands,” and who also “come out at night to subdue the population.”

Álvarez said there have been firefights between his forest guardians and armed invaders multiple times. When illegal loggers are caught, the Mazahua turn them over to Mexico’s National Guard instead of local authorities, who tend to be more corrupt. Sometimes the loggers have also sought revenge for shipments of contraband timber seized on indigenous land.

Another forest guard, Ricardo Salgado, recounted one such incident from last October in which he was attacked by “at least a dozen armed men” after becoming separated from the rest of his unit during an anti-logging patrol. “I was sure they meant to kill me because they didn’t bother to wear masks to hide their faces,” he told The Daily Beast.

During the ambush Salgado returned fire with his assault rifle before taking shelter in a ravine. His comrades were drawn by the gunfire and soon arrived to rescue him, although Salgado’s pickup truck was shot up and burned during the encounter.

Members of the Mazahua Forest Guardians of Crescencio Morales on patrol in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican state of Michoacán

Ricardo Salgado

“I was able to get out alive on that occasion but the danger still exists for me, my family, and my companions,” Salgado said. On another occasion, according to press reports, at least nine people were killed in clashes between angry community members and an organized crime group. Salgado, however, said the actual death toll was 14 people, including a local woman and her father whose murders sparked the confrontation.

Álvarez, Salgado, and their fellow Mazahuas are willing to risk their lives to defend the endangered monarchs, whose numbers have decreased more than 80 percent since the mid-1990s. That downward trend—driven by the triple whammy of herbicides, climate change, and habitat loss due to deforestation—seems to be accelerating. An estimated 26 percent were lost just over the last few years.

The cartels are all about power and greed.

The pine forests of the Monarch Reserve, which is also a World Heritage site, are the winter hibernation grounds for millions of the colorful insects which flutter down from Canada and the U.S. each November.

Álvarez formed the force of what he calls “community guards” because the local government in Michoacán was “overwhelmed by organized crime.” Local authorities “cannot provide security or they do not want to. That is why we must organize ourselves to take care of [the forest]. That is the reality in which we live,” Álvarez said.

According to a recent study, at least 70 percent of lumber traded in Mexico is done so illegally.

“Illegal logging is one of the most lucrative and fastest growing criminal activities in Mexico,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast. “In 2019, the amount of forest destroyed was more than twice the size of Mexico City. It generates tens of millions of dollars each year for the cartels.”

Vigil also said the increase in clandestine logging that provoked the Mazahuas is likely tied to the COVID pandemic.

“Deforestation increased because of closed borders in many countries around the world making it difficult to smuggle drugs and the precursors needed for the manufacture of synthetic drugs. Lumber could be sold quickly and help the cartels stay afloat during the pandemic,” Vigil said.

All that clear-cutting spells trouble for the monarchs, which require healthy forest cover to provide shelter from predators and rough weather.

“The pines act like blankets for the monarchs—so to cut them down is like cutting holes in the blanket,” said World Wildlife Fund biologist and monarch specialist Eduardo Rendón. “They group in the trees for protection, so without enough forest cover many will die.”

Rendón also praised the efforts of the Crescencio Morales ejido: “What the indigenous communities are doing is important for the survival of the monarchs in the U.S. and Mexico. We are very grateful to them for organizing to protect their forests—not just for the butterflies but for the health of an ecosystem that provides water to the entire region.”

The DEA’s Vigil called the struggle of Mazahuas forest guards a “modern day David and Goliath story” due to the disparity of numbers, financial strength, and firepower between large organized crime groups and the indigenous patrols. “The cartels are all about power and greed,” he said. “They ruthlessly kill tens of thousands men, women, and children every year. The preservation of monarch butterflies is not even on their radar screen.”

Because they fly down each year in November, the Mazahuas have for hundreds of years associated the coming of the monarchs with traditional Day of the Dead observances.

Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund

“Historically, the arrival of the monarch to the Mazahua community is linked to the arrival of the souls of the deceased,” said Armando Huerta Velázquez, an anthropologist at the College of Scientific and Technical Studies in Michoacan. “This makes [the annual migration] special and solemn for the Mazahua, who [each year] await the arrival of the deceased.” The monarchs also serve as a reminder of mortality and the inevitability of death, Velázquez explained.

When it comes to the old legends and the comparison of the monarchs to the souls of the dead, ejido leader Álvarez suggested a more practical approach.

“Those are what our grandparents told us,” he said of the ancient myths, but the motivation for taking on dangerous crime groups goes far beyond mere superstition. “It is the duty of each human being to take care of the environment where he was born, to use it but with order, so it is not destroyed. So that’s why we take care of the butterfly [and] our forests. Because through them we have water and oxygen and all else that we need to survive.”

There is always the danger of dying now.

Teresa de Miguel, a reporter with Mexico’s El País newspaper, recently traveled to Crescencio Morales where she joined the community guards on their patrols. De Miguel said the problems plaguing the ejido are symptomatic of other troubling trends throughout rural Mexico.

“The absence of a strong government that fights against criminals, the impunity that allows illegal logging to continue without consequences for those who commit it, and the penetration of organized crime in activities that go beyond drug trafficking,” all contribute to growing instability and a mistrust of authorities, de Miguel said.

Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund

De Miguel also cited the cartels’ extorting from farmers and the sale of drugs, especially crystal meth, as additional problems in remote parts of the country, and suggested that the combination of these factors force communities to “see no other path than self-government.”

De Miguel marveled that the state and federal officials were doing so little to protect a flagship species like the monarch.

Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund

“Although the migration of the monarch butterfly is one of the most spectacular on the planet and attracts tourists from around the world [yet] the government’s lack of attention to the forests in which it hibernates is leading the communities themselves to rise up to protect them,” de Miguel said.

The DEA’s Vigil echoed these concerns: “I am appalled the Mexican government is doing so little to curtail the horrific activities of the cartels and has instead placed their responsibilities in the hands of ragtag self-defense forces.”

Journalist de Miguel said that for her, the most puzzling aspect of the controversy is that “there are millions of pesos earmarked for the protection of this [monarch] reserve, but the reality on the ground shows that this money is not being used to preserve these forests.”

In the absence of those earmarked millions, ejido leader Álvarez and the others continue to soldier on in spite of the grave risks posed by some of the country’s most powerful crime syndicates.

“There is danger at the surveillance points and out on the patrols,” he told The Daily Beast. “There is always the danger of dying now because you are taking care of the forest.”

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