Nov 132010

The city of Zitácuaro in the state of Michoacán had played an important part in Mexican history (hence its full official name of Heróica Zitácuaro) but was largely ignored by tourists until the early 1980s. Things changed, and tourists started coming, when the locations of the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites were first published. The Monarchs had been undertaking their amazing annual migration from Canada and the USA to the rugged mountains close to Zitácuaro for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, but it was only in the early 1980s when articles in newspapers and science journals first provided locational details.

The Monarch butterflies have since become one of the major ecotourist attractions in this part of Mexico. On a single day in February, more than 5,000 tourists enter the main Monarch reserve El Rosario, accessed from either Angangueo or Ocampo, about 40 minutes driving time from Zitácuaro. Hotels in this area have done well out of the annual November-March “butterfly season”. Indeed, the demand led to the construction of several new hotels in the area, some of them more than large enough to handle tourist groups arriving by the coachload.

In 1980, I began leading regular fieldtrips to Zitácuaro and its surrounds, the major attractions being wonderful scenery and an interesting mix of settlement types, covering everything from 4-hut hamlets to the medium-sized city of Zitácuaro, which had a population at the time of about 100,000.  Over the years, I’ve watched Zitácuaro grow into a much larger city. When the bypass was first built, and federal Highway 15 rerouted around the town instead of along Avenida Revolución, it was ignored by most motorists, who preferred to drive through the city, often stopping for gas or food before continuing their journey. Within a few years, services had begun to spring up, as if by magic, alongside the bypass. Today, the city has spread well beyond the confines of the bypass.

In recent years, violence related to drug trafficking has reached the city. This is perhaps somewhat surprising, given its location far from the USA border, and far from the traditional territories of the main drug cartels. But, as we saw in an earlier post (The geography of drug trafficking in Mexico),  Zitácuaro is very close to the edge of the “territories in dispute” immediately to the west of Mexico City. Violence in these areas is growing as rival groups seek to control the lucrative drug trade. The La Familia crime group is responsible for most drug-related violence in Michoacán.

An article in the New Yorker earlier this year described in detail how La Familia has increasingly threatened the rule of law in  Zitácuaro. The article serves as a good introduction to how an ordinary Mexican city – in this case Zitácuaro – can be dramatically changed by a committed and ruthless criminal group.

An overview of the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico forms part of chapter 20 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

Related post about drug cartels in Mexico:

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