The farmer-turned-policeman is Mexico’s eyes and ears at the Popocatepetl volcano

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

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

But for nearly three decades, Aquino says he has been “taking care” of the volcano known as “El Popo.” And for the past 23 years, he has been sending photos to scientists every day.

Cooperation between researchers and local residents, usually with limited resources, is key to monitoring Mexico’s volcanoes. Hundreds of villagers work together in various ways. Key events are often witnessed only by local residents. Sometimes scientists install recording devices on their land or use them to collect ash samples.

One night this week, the thin, husky-voiced 70-year-old stopped his patrol truck near the cemetery overlooking his hometown, one of the best vantage points in the area. At his feet lay the city of Santiago Xalitzintla. Just ahead, 14 miles (23 kilometers) away, sat Popocatepetl, puffing smoke, the rim of its crater glowing.

Since he seemed calm, but Aquino did not stay long. In the previous week, he had been busy sending digital photos of the volcano to researchers at universities and government agencies as activity on the mountain increased and authorities raised the alert level. The world’s eyes were once again on 17,797-foot Popocatepetl, including the 25 million people who live within 60 miles of its crater.

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On Friday, officials said the volcano’s activity had decreased somewhat, although the alert level was maintained.

A farmer who had been a meatpacker in Utah for three years in his late 20s, he immigrated to the United States illegally, but Aquino’s life took a radical turn one day in 1994 when someone in his hometown told him the police were looking for him.

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

– Can you read? ‘Yes.’ ‘Irish?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you driving?’ ‘Yes.’ “Do you have a driver’s license?” ‘Yes.’ “Damn, this will do.”

The officers told de Aquino that the government was looking for people to monitor the volcano and that the then 41-year-old had certain advantages. He seemed serious, finished high school and learned how to take pictures during his short stay in the United States.

At first, he was given a voluntary civil defense role and attended some courses at the National Center for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED, where he “immersed himself in the volcano”. But he wasn’t thrilled about doing the work without pay. Therefore, the authorities offered to send him to the police academy.

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Although de Aquino became a regular police officer, he was a strange cop. He almost always worked alone, patrolling remote mountain roads and taking photos of the volcano.

The way to compensate local people who help monitor the volcano is rarely easy, since they are not on the payroll of universities or other research institutes, even though “our eyes are close to the volcano,” UNAM researcher Carlos Valdés said. Geophysical Institute and former head of CENAPRED.

As an example, Valdés said that when the seismic monitoring system was installed in Popocatepetl, the key person was a climber who lived in the city of Amecameca. The man, since he passed away, knew the safest climbing routes and how to avoid placing instruments in places sacred to the locals.

The man’s way of compensating him was to “buy tires for his jeep, fix the vehicle, bring him a coat” because otherwise it was difficult to pay.

Paulino Alonso, a CENAPRED technician who is doing fieldwork in Popocatepetl, said that by working with the locals, the researchers had a better understanding of how the locals perceive the risks.

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

In 2000, when Popocatepetl became active, authorities declared a red alert and evacuated thousands of people. But Aquino’s work as an observer intensified.

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

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

De Aquino helps inform locals about the volcano and helps with evacuations. At one point, his house becomes a makeshift shelter for soldiers, police and government officials, he said.

But Aquino came to fly over the crater, terrified at first. “You see the whole base, how it’s lit up, how it’s smoking … it was a strange feeling,” he said.

Despite exceeding the retirement age, he continued his work.

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