The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 20, 2000 ; Page A30

Mexicans Brace for New 'Popo' Eruptions

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

SANTIAGO XALITZINTLA, Mexico, Dec. 19 -- Ramos Merino was born in this little village at the foot of Popocatepetl, the towering volcano that erupted
Monday night with a growling, fire-spitting fury not seen in at least 500 years. He stood today in his abandoned village and craned his neck back, back, back to gaze
up at the majestic swirl of dense gray vapor rising out of "Popo's" gaping crater.

"He commands. He gives the orders," Merino said. "But he seems different now."

Like almost all the 2,000 villagers here, Merino, 30, has abandoned his house for a government shelter outside the danger zone, 40 miles southeast of Mexico City.
But while Popo took a smoky breather today, apparently preparing for another eruption, armed soldiers allowed Merino and other villagers to return long enough to
feed their livestock. The place was eerily empty. A schoolhouse decorated for Christmas sat vacant. Soldiers patrolled the abandoned streets to prevent looting.

Merino had often gone along on the town's annual pilgrimage to the volcano, about six miles away. Villagers offer food and clothing to the mountain -- affectionately
known here as "Don Gregorio" -- which is credited with providing rain for their meager corn crop.

"We always went to say 'Thank you,' but now we are afraid for our families and our children," he said.

Popocatepetl is more than a mountain to Mexico. It is like Mount Fuji is to Japan or Kilimanjaro to Tanzania: a symbol of spirituality and perfection, an expression of
national pride, an object of desire for poets and painters. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo painted Popo, as high a compliment as there is in Mexico.

"It's part of our culture, our legends, our myths," said Homero Aridjis, a poet who has written extensively about Popo. "So when it blows, it means a lot -- perhaps
the end of an era, the end of an age. We don't know yet."

Since Popo erupted in a spectacular explosion of flowing lava and streaming rocks that lighted the night sky like tracer bullets, more than 30,000 people have fled
their homes in a massive government evacuation effort. Thousands of soldiers have been sent to help evacuate people from the largely agricultural communities at the
foot of the 17,886-foot volcano. President Vicente Fox toured the area by helicopter this morning, greeting people who have moved into some of the 180 emergency
shelters and whizzing within a few miles of Popo's smoking cone.

Servando de la Cruz, a volcano specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said records of Popocatepetl's rumblings trace back about 500 years to
the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1519. He said that by all accounts Monday's eruption was easily the most spectacular in that period -- and perhaps even far

Interior Minister Santiago Creel, who accompanied Fox on his tour, said the scientific consensus is that Popo is preparing for another large eruption. After the
eruption Monday evening and another at 2 a.m. today, Creel said, pressure seems to be building inside Popo again. No injuries or major property damage have been
recorded thus far, but Creel said the area around the volcano will remain on high alert indefinitely.

Mexico City and its 20 million residents were spared most of Popo's effects, because winds blew ash and smoke in the opposite direction. But the effects were felt in
the nearby city of Puebla, where many airline flights were canceled, and at the city's massive Volkswagen plant, where cars were being shipped out as fast as they
were produced to avoid damage from the ash.

But the most immediate effects were felt in a dozen or so towns near the base of the volcano. Daniel Mena Perez, 53, also returned home to Xalitzintla to feed his
horses and pigs in the shadow of the huge plume of smoke rising from Popo. Mena remembered the volcano's last round of explosive activity, in 1994, when the
government last asked residents to evacuate.

Then, only about half the town left. Mena and many people stayed behind, thinking it impossible that Popo would actually erupt. Others feared that looters would
clean out their homes.

This time, Mena has joined almost everyone, forced out of the village of his birth for the first time in his life. "We even asked the old ones, and it's never been this
bad," Mena said.