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A farmer-turned-policeman is Mexico’s eyes and ears on the Popocatepetl volcano

SANTIAGO XALITZINTLA, Mexico — When the Popocatepetl volcano awoke in 1994, Mexican scientists needed people in the area who could be their eyes and ears. State police helped them find one, Nefi de Aquino, a farmer then in his forties who lived next to the volcano. From that moment, his life changed.

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

For nearly three decades, de Aquino says he has been “taking care” of the volcano affectionately known as “El Popo.” And for 23 of those years, he has been sending photographs to scientists daily.

Collaboration between researchers and local residents – usually people of limited means – is crucial for monitoring Mexican volcanoes. Hundreds of villagers collaborate in different ways. Often, local residents are the only witnesses to key events. Sometimes scientists set up recording devices on their land or have them take ash samples.

One evening this week, the skinny, 70-year-old, raspy-voiced police officer stopped his patrol truck near the cemetery overlooking his hometown, one of the best vantage points in the area. At its feet lay the city of Santiago Xalitzintla. Just ahead, 14 miles (23 kilometers) away, was Popocatepetl, puffing smoke, the rim of its crater illuminated.

As he seemed calm, de Aquino did not stay long. Over the past week, he had been busy sending digital photographs of volcanoes to a slew of researchers at universities and government agencies as activity on the mountain increased and authorities raised the level of alert. Once again, the eyes of the world were on the 17,797-foot 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 diminished somewhat although they maintained the same alert level.

A farmer who was a meat packer for three years in Utah in his late twenties when he emigrated to the United States illegally, de Aquino’s life took a drastic turn one day in 1994 when someone in his hometown told him the police were looking for him.

At first he was afraid to go to the police, but he finally did. The interview was brief.

“‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘To write?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you driving?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have a license?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Heck, this one will work.’

Officers told de Aquino that the government was looking for people to monitor the volcano and that he, then 41, had some advantages. He looked serious, he had finished high school and during his short stay in the United States he had learned to take pictures.

At first, he was given a volunteer role in civil defense and he took courses at the National Center for Disaster Reduction, or CENAPRED, where he was “immersed in the volcano”. But he was not happy to do the work without being paid. The authorities therefore offered to send him to the police academy.

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

The ways in which local people who help monitor the volcano are compensated are rarely straightforward, as they are not paid by universities or other research institutes, although they have “become our close eyes on the volcano”, a said Carlos Valdés, researcher at UNAM. Institute of Geophysics and former director of CENAPRED.

As an example, Valdés said the key person when installing the seismic monitoring system on Popocatepetl was a mountain climber who lived in the town of Amecameca. The man, who has since died, knew the safest climbing routes and how to avoid placing instruments in places sacred to locals.

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

Paulino Alonso, a CENAPRED technician who works in the field in Popocatepetl, said collaborating with locals has also allowed researchers to better understand how locals perceive risks.

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

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

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

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

De Aquino helps keep residents informed about the volcano and assists with evacuations. Once his house becomes an impromptu shelter for soldiers, police and government officials, he said.

De Aquino was able to accompany the flyovers of the crater, the first time terrified. “You see the whole base, how it lights up, how it smokes…it was weird,” he said.

He continued his work although he was past retirement age.

“What I learned from (Popocatepetl) is that as long as he’s calm he doesn’t do anything, but when he goes crazy he goes crazy,” he said.

ABC News

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