Once a meatpacker from Utah, it’s now Mexico’s eyes and ears at Popocatepetl Volcano

Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico • When the Popocatepetl volcano awoke again in 1994, Mexican scientists needed people in the area who could be their eyes and ears. State police helped them locate one, Nefi de Aquino, a farmer in his 40s at the time, who lived next to the volcano. From that moment his life changed.

He became a policeman himself, but with a very specific task: to monitor Popocatepetl and report everything he saw to the authorities and researchers of various institutions.

For nearly three decades, de Aquino has “taken care of” the volcano affectionately known as “El Popo,” de Aquino says. And for 23 years he has been sending scientists photos every day.

Collaboration between researchers and local residents — typically people of limited resources — is critical to volcano monitoring in Mexico. Hundreds of villagers work together in different ways. Local residents are often the only witnesses to important events. Sometimes scientists install recording devices on their land or have ash samples collected.

Popocatepetl volcano ejects lava, ash and steam seen from Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico early Thursday, May 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

One evening this week, the thin, hoarse-voiced 70-year-old cop pulled his squad car near the cemetery overlooking his hometown, one of the best vantage points in the area. At its feet lay the city of Santiago Xalitzintla. Right in front of us, at a distance of 22 kilometers, Popocatepetl sat smoking, the rim of its crater glowing.

Since it seemed quiet, de Aquino didn’t stay long. For the past week he has been busy sending digital photos of the volcano to a number of researchers at universities and government agencies as activity on the mountain increased and authorities raised the alert level. Once again, the eyes of the world were on the 17,797-foot-tall Popocatepetl, including those of the 25 million people who live within 60 miles of its crater.

On Friday, officials said the volcano’s activity had dropped somewhat, although they maintained the same alert level.

De Aquino, a farmer in his late 20s who worked as a meat packer in Utah for three years before immigrating illegally to the United States, took a radical turn one day in 1994 when someone in his hometown told him that the police looking for him.

At first he was afraid to go to the police, but eventually he did. The interview was short.

“‘Do you know how to read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Write?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you going?’ ‘Yes.’ “Do you have a license?” ‘Yes.’ ‘Damn, this is going to work.’”

Officials told de Aquino that the government was looking for people to monitor the volcano and that he, then 41, had certain advantages. He appeared serious, having graduated from high school and learned photography during his brief stay in the United States.

First he was given a civil defense volunteer role and took some courses at the National Center for Disaster Prevention (CENAPRED) where he was “volcano immersed”. But he wasn’t thrilled about doing the work for free. Therefore, the authorities offered to send him to the police academy.

Although de Aquino became an officer with some normal police duties, he was an oddball cop. He almost always worked alone, patrolling remote mountain roads and taking photos of the volcano.

The ways in which the local people who help monitor the volcano are compensated are rarely easy as they are not on the payroll of universities or other research organizations despite “our eyes getting closer to the volcano”, said Carlos Valdés, a researcher at the UNAM Institute of Geophysics and former director of CENAPRED.

As an example, Valdés said that the key person in installing the seismic monitoring system on Popocatepetl was a mountaineer who lived in the town of Amecameca. The now-deceased man knew the safest climbing routes and knew how to avoid placing instruments in places sacred to the locals.

The way to compensate the man was to “buy tires for his jeep, fix the vehicle and get him coats” because otherwise it would be difficult to pay him.

Paulino Alonso, a technician at CENAPRED conducting field research in Popocatepetl, said working with local people has also given researchers a better understanding of how local people perceive risk.

“A machine will never appeal to the human perception of danger,” Alonso said.

In 2000, as Popocatepetl became more active, the authorities declared a red alert and thousands of people were evacuated. De Aquino’s surveillance work has intensified.

“They gave me cameras, a squad car and binoculars, and every day I had to send three photos: one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one at night,” the officer said.

Nefi de Aquino, a police officer who works for scientists to keep an eye on the activity of the Popocatépetl volcano, speaks during an interview in Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico, Thursday, May 25, 2023. For nearly three decades, De Aquino has said he ‘cares around the volcano affectionately known as “El Popo” and sends scientists daily photos to Mexico City. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

He continues this work to this day, filling his adobe-walled house with thousands of photographs. De Aquino lives alone on a modest ranch on the slopes of the volcano, where he grows some fruit trees next to a creek and also grows corn and a few animals.

De Aquino helps update locals about the volcano and assists with evacuations. At some point, his house will become a spontaneous shelter for soldiers, police officers and government officials, he said.

De Aquino was allowed to fly over the crater and was terrified the first time. “You see the whole base, how it’s lighting up, how it’s emitting smoke… it felt weird,” he said.

He has continued his job despite having passed retirement age.

“What I learned from (Popocatepetl) is that while it’s calm it doesn’t do anything, but when it gets angry it goes mad,” he said.

Justin Scaccy

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