A Mexican environmental activist who fought to protect the wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly has been found dead in the western state of Michoacán, two weeks after he disappeared.

Homero Gómez González, a former logger who managed El Rosario butterfly reserve, vanished on 13 January. His body was found floating in a well on Wednesday, reportedly showing signs of torture.

The motive for his murder remains unknown, but some activists speculated that it could have been related to disputes over illegal logging.

Last week, authorities called in 53 police officers from the surrounding municipalities for questioning.

Gómez González’s death comes as the murder rate continues to surge in a country where environmental defenders, human rights workers and community activists are routinely targeted for their work.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised to halt attacks on environmental defenders, but the killings continue.

“This is a very regrettable act, very painful,” López Obrador said at his morning press conference on Thursday. “It’s part of what makes us apply ourselves more to guarantee peace and tranquility in the country.”

According to Global Witness 14 defenders were murdered in Mexico in 2018.

Gómez González grew up in El Rosario, a hamlet in the hills of western Michoacán, where monarch butterflies winter amid dense forests of fir and pine trees.

Millions of the butterflies make a 2,000-mile (3,220km) journey each year from Canada to pass the winter in central Mexico’s warmer weather. But the forests and the monarchs are threatened by climate change and the incursion of illegal loggers and avocado farmers.

A gentle man with a salt-and-pepper hair and thick mustache, Gómez González was born into a logging family according to a profile in the Washington Post.

“We were afraid that if we had to stop logging, it would send us all into poverty,” he told the newspaper.

But he eventually convinced others to abandon logging and protect butterfly habitats instead, figuring tourism would replace the lost income. The sanctuary is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and federal law outlaws logging in the site.

Gómez González often posted mesmerising videos of fluttering monarchs to social media.

En el Santuario El Rosario Ocampo Michoacan “ El más grande del mundo “ pic.twitter.com/WlCJuOcG4Q

In one of his last videos, shared on Twitter a day before his disappearance, Homero Gómez González stood amid a cloud of butterflies. “Come and and see this marvel of nature! [The butterflies] are lovers of the sun, the souls of the dead,” he said, referring to indigenous legends about the migratory butterflies.

Speaking to the AP, Homero Aridjis, an environmentalist and poet who is a longtime defender of the butterfly reserve, said: “If they can kidnap and kill the people who work for the reserves, who is going to defend the environment in Mexico?”

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