The Killing Fields

Twenty miles inland of Mexico’s western coast, in a valley in the state of Nayarit so hot and bug-ridden it is known as the “Little Inferno,” Indians from the ancient Huichole tribe are dying at alarming rates.

The Huicholes work in the dense tobacco fields that make this valley rich and that supply some of the tobacco smoked in the United States. If little is known about pesticide poisoning in Culiacan, even less is known in Nayarit, where the U.S. companies financing the crops often fail to ensure that workers use the necessary protective equipment.

Alberto Avila Lamos, 25, has worked in these fields for 11 years. In 1993 he almost died as a result of the growers’ oversight. He was poisoned by a pesticide called methomyl. “I felt the symptoms right after I spilled it on myself,” he says. “At first I felt like I was shaking, then I had a fever, then I started vomiting. The last thing I remember was the smell. It smelled like vanilla. They told me they took me to the hospital and gave me transfusions. I’m not sure. I didn’t wake up for three days.”

On a hot day last spring, growers refused to talk about Lamos’ near-death, or about the dimensions of pesticide poisoning in general. Meanwhile, planes flew low, spraying pesticides over fields full of workers, and young boys walked through the fields applying more.

“It defies common sense,” says Dr. Luciano Garcia, a hospital director in Santiago Ixcuintla, a town in the middle of the tobacco-growing region. “[Growers in Mexico] are making the same mistakes the United States and Canada made a generation ago. There is no good reason for these mistakes to be made again.”

And still the long oval tobacco leaves dry in the sun, strung from cords into graceful curves. At night the Huicholes sleep under them, breathing in the deadly pesticides that coat the tobacco.