Butterflies and Bandits

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Things have gotten pretty bad in Michoacan (one of the 31 states of Mexico) in recent years. The murder rate has skyrocketed. Politicians are being assassinated in record numbers. Crimes against women are among the highest in the world. The Universities are under siege with students battling against municipalities and against non-students who are clamoring to get in.

A vigilante group who call themselves THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, organized to fight the ZETA criminal cartel. After a decades long bloody battle, the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR have

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

taken over most of the ZETAs criminal activities and have opened trade with organized crime syndicates all over the world. Now a new vigilante movement has taken hold and there is open warfare between them and the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR and remnants of the ZETAS. Soldiers in the new vigilante movement include members of Latino gangs from the U.S., who have either been deported or who have voluntarily left United States jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.

The Mexican government has sent in federal troupes because the municipalities are corrupt and the police can’t be trusted. The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings advising citizens to avoid all but essential travel in Michoacan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in The Mexican state except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.

Monarch Sanctuary

Monarch Sanctuary

So my wife Margaret said to me, “Lets visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan while we’re in Mexico,” and I said, “Sure, why not.” Ignorance is bliss.

Who wouldn’t want to see the Monarchs? There are undeniable mystical overtones to the Monarch migration, perfect for a writer who dabbles in Magic Realism. Up to a billion of these delicate creatures leave their home in eastern Canada and fly 2,500 miles to the mountains of central Mexico. They arrive when locals are celebrating the Day of the Dead (October 31 to November 2).

Monarchs clustered in pines

Monarchs clustered in pines

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the holiday, it is a remnant of an Aztec festival that was celebrated at the beginning of summer. The Catholic Church tried to eradicate it but was only able to shorten it and move it to a time that coincided with a vaguely similar All Saints Day festival. On the day of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors visit the living. The living throw a party for the occasion with feasts and costumes (mostly skeletons) and parades. The locals in the mountains of Michoacan say the butterflies are the ancestral spirits. The timing is right, and it does seem like quite a coincidence.

There’s more. The typical Monarch life cycle lasts 4 to 5 weeks, starting as an egg, going through the larva period, morphing into a pupa until it reaches the adult stage when it reproduces and then dies. But when summer is over in Canada and temperatures drop drastically, a special generation is born. This new group will fly all the way to Michoacan where they can hibernate, feed, mate, and then travel back home. This different kind of Monarch is known as the Methuselah generation. These migratory Monarchs live as long as eight months. This age old miracle is observable, measurable, and totally without explanation—practically the definition of Magic Realism.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

We hired a driver—I’m so glad we did—who took us to the Butterfly reserve. We climbed the mountain and witnessed millions of Monarchs clustered in the pine trees so thick they bent the branches. When they swarmed, we could hear the sound of thousands of wings moving the air. It was a spectacle I will never forget.

Follow this link to see and hear Monarchs taking flight IMG_0344

I never thought once about the dangers—or knew about them truth be told—until we were on the highway to Morelia, the second part of our trip. The toll booth (yes, they have those in Mexico too) just before we got into the capitol city of Michoacan had been taken over by about 20 young men our driver called “the boys”.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

They were students, he told us, or they would be students if times were better. Until things moderate, they hijack toll booths and demand money before they let cars pass. The going rate was 100 Pesos (about 7 U.S. dollars). There were several Michoacan police cars on the other side of the booth. They didn’t intervene.

“Sometimes the boys get aggressive,” our driver said. “Sometimes they block traffic for hours. This time we were lucky.”

For better or for worse, that’s what it’s like in Michoacan these days. Luck is an inexpensive inconvenience that could have been worse. There are butterflies and there are bandits. Unforgettable, but I don’t think I’ll make that trip again.