Volcano threatens millions in Mexico Slums near Mexico City would be endangered if mountain erupts


SANTIAGO XALITZINTLA, Mexico -- In this impoverished farming village at the foot of the Popocatepetl volcano, shaman Antonio Analco takes residents on mountainside pilgrimages with offerings of fruit, wine and music.

They chant, scream and shout in homage to the majestic 17,887-foot Popocatepetl, which means "smoking mountain" in TC their native Nahuatl, then trek back to indigenous communities where the elderly still speak the language of the Aztec empire. According to local lore, the spirit of Popocatepetl is married to Ixtaccihuatl, which means "Mountain of the white woman," a smaller, dormant volcano north of here.

With Popocatepetl belching clouds of fire and stone in recent weeks, the 50-year-old shaman, a farmer and member of the village council, has been thrust into the mystical and scientific debate over the volcano.

The mountain has been spitting and burping periodically since December 1994, but recent fiery snorts have left valley residents searching for answers. Analco, who claims to communicate with the volcano's spirit in dreams, has sought to assure people that, for now, there is no danger.

"We will see ash and rock falling but we shouldn't be afraid," Analco said. "God has not given the order. Nothing will happen."

Some volcanologists, however, said the danger is real, with the possibility of a gaseous buildup within the volcano's crater triggering a major eruption. Tens of thousands of people live in the immediate vicinity of the volcano, and Mexico City, one of the world's largest cities, is just 39 miles west.

The volcano, popularly known as Popo, has erupted 16 times since the Spanish conquest of 1521, but none has been catastrophic. The last major eruption occurred 1,100 years ago, when mudslides cascaded onto areas now inhabited by millions of people.

After lying dormant for decades, Popo suddenly roared back to life a few days before Christmas in 1994, forcing the government to develop an extensive seismographic monitoring system. Last year, five expert climbers monitoring Popo were found burned to death on its eastern ridge, apparently killed by a blast of rock, ash and sulfuric gas.

Stanley Williams, an Arizona State University geologist, warned that Popo's recent activity could be extremely dangerous.

Measurements of plumes emitted by the volcano show that it's releasing 10,000 to 30,000 metric tons of sulphur dioxide each day -- up to 30 times the amount of gaseous material released by the world's five most active volcanoes. "Popo's releasing more gas now than any volcano which isn't erupting," said Williams.

"The fact there is so much gas being released means there must be a serious potential of explosive activity," added Williams, who visited Popo earlier this month for geological research. "But, the fact that it has been releasing it so relentlessly, so efficiently, means a safety valve is working very efficiently these days. If that safety valve continues to be very efficient, to bleed off the energy, Popo has the best safety valve we've ever seen. But the volcano is still extremely active and dangerous."

A major eruption could be disastrous. Several sprawling slums lie between Popo and Mexico City, and tens of thousands of people live in the farming villages scattered beneath the mountain.

Ash full of static electricity from a major eruption would clog automobile carburetors and knock out traffic lights and radio communication, experts say. Ash could accumulate on rooftops, causing them to collapse on people seeking shelter in the vicinity of the volcano. The sky could fill with 2,000-degree clouds of glowing ash and gas. And the melting of ice on Popo's summit could cause massive mudslides with the strength to sweep away entire villages.

In Xalitzintla, however, life goes on despite Popo's rumblings. A few of its 3,500 residents have left since the 1994 explosion, but the majority have stayed.

Pub Date: 5/26/97

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