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Mexico's Drug War Keeps Tourists From Monarchs

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Mexico's Drug War Keeps Tourists From Monarchs

Latin America

Mexico's Drug War Keeps Tourists From Monarchs

Mexico's Drug War Keeps Tourists From Monarchs

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is the time of year when millions of monarch butterflies gather in several forests in central Mexico. Local officials have tried to market the Monarch butterflies migration as a tourist attraction but their winter reserve happens to be in a state hard hit by Mexico's drug war.


At this time of year, millions of Monarch butterflies are clustered on fir trees in the forests of central Mexico. It's one of the most spectacular and mysterious migrations in the world. It brings the butterflies from Canada to Mexico for the winter. Mexico wants to promote the migration as a tourist attraction, which makes it awkward that the forests are in an area ravaged by drug violence.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

(Soundbite of rippling butterfly wings)

JASON BEAUBIEN: At first, it sounds like a stream rippling somewhere in the distance. Then the flapping of butterfly wings grows into a buzz. Monarchs have converged, as they do every year, on a grove of evergreen trees in Michoacan that's almost two miles above sea level. There are so many of the orange-and-black creatures that the trees appear to be covered in a strange moss.


BEAUBIEN: Margarito Gonzalez Navarro from the local village of El Rosario says there are millions of butterflies here right now. They're clustered in three parts of the forest, but in a few weeks, they'll all merge together before heading back towards Canada.

In the mid-1970s, researchers discovered that several high-altitude forests in central Mexico serve as the primary winter habitat for millions of Monarch butterflies. Gonzalez says the Monarchs have become hugely important to this remote, impoverished part of the country.

Mr. NAVARRO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: For the community, the butterflies are important because we have a source of work for five months of the year, Gonzalez says.

Some people work as guides. Others run small restaurants or food stalls. The area is so poor that kids as young as four or five scramble to hawk souvenirs. Children in rags with limited musical talent attempt to sing for a few pesos.

Unidentified Child: (Singing in Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: Last month, President Felipe Calderon declared 2011 the Year of Tourism. His administration is attempting to lure back tourists who've been scared away by Mexico's brutal drug war.

The state of Michoacan, where the Monarchs come each winter, has been particularly tarnished by drug-related violence. Late last year, shootouts between Mexican police and criminals shut down all the major roads into the state capital. The dominant local gang, La Familia, has a penchant for decapitating its rivals.

Most of this violence happens far away from the butterfly reserves, but the general sense of insecurity in Michoacan has deterred visitors.

Mr. FRANCISCO VELAZQUEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: Francisco Velazquez says the number of visitors to the area this butterfly season has been the lowest ever.

Velazquez is the lone tourism official in the nearby town of Angangueo. Angangueo used to be a silver mining hub, but the local mines went into decline in the 1980's and the last one shut in 1991. Velazquez says this part of central Mexico is hoping tourism can be its savior.

Mr. VELAZQUEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: We used to be about 13,000 people, Velazquez says. But now Angangueo has only about 10,000 residents. Because of the lack of work, Velazquez says residents have been forced to move elsewhere in Mexico, or, like the Monarch butterflies, migrate to the United States and Canada.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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