The pall of white, acrid haze hanging over states from Texas to Florida is caused by Mexican farmers clearing land to plant corn - and marijuana.
For weeks, fires have been raging throughout Mexico and much of Central America, choking cities, causing schools to close and airports in some areas to suspend operations. Last week, the thick haze began moving north, affecting mostly the Gulf states but also reaching the Midwest. In Texas, officials advised people to remain indoors to avoid the "hazardous" smoke.
Most of the blazes are set by farmers following the age-old tradition of burning overgrown cropland before the spring planting and May rains. With this year's extremely dry and hot conditions in the region, many have burned out of control.
But in a disturbing new development, this year Mexican officials say some of the fires are also being set by drug traffickers. With 30,000 soldiers who might normally be sent out on drug interdiction missions being reassigned to help battle the fires, the drug traffickers are finding that the more fires burn, the easier it is for their merchandise to flow north.
Yet some of the traffickers' fires also have an "agricultural" purpose, officials add: Land is being cleared for marijuana. Last Friday in the Pacific state of Sinaloa, firefighters arriving at a raging blaze were shot at by farmers who didn't want the fire put out. The fire was set to clear land for marijuana planting, but ended up burning out of control and was still blackening forested acreage over the weekend.
Mexico has registered nearly 10,000 fires this year, which have charred more than a half-million acres, according to the environment secretariat. That's more than 200 percent over the annual average for the past five years. While part of the blackened earth is crop acreage, Mexico is also losing forest lands: Last week, a fire was burning out of control in the country's last virgin rain forest.
Fires are also burning out of control in Honduras and Guatemala.
Officials say the land is so dry this year as a result of the El Nio weather phenomenon that the fires are likely to continue until annual rains arrive later this month. That apparent resignation may be one reason so little has been done up to now to stop the burning. On Friday, Mexico accepted a belated offer of fire-fighting assistance made earlier in the week by the US and Texas.
US Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas last week sent a letter to President Clinton requesting that US help be sent south. "It seems clear that the governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala are simply incapable of fighting these enormous fires," Mr. Gramm said in his letter.
The assistance to Mexico will include the use of tanker planes and helicopters and other equipment to fight the fires, plus participation in a reforestation program and training after the fires are out.
In a sardonic moment Friday, popular Mexico City radio commentator Jos Gutirrez Vivo quipped that whereas Americans are accustomed to Mexico sending its people north, "now we're sending smoke 'Made in Mexico.' "
Mexican officials acknowledge they lack the resources for a full assault on the fires. Already 50 firefighters have died in the blazes, most of them wearing only T-shirts and jeans and equipped with little more than shovels or blankets to smother the fires. But officials also cite social and cultural conditions that make stopping the fires complex. Around Mexico City, fires have been set inside ecological reserves by squatters taking advantage of the weather to clear land for illegal dwellings. Officials insist that no change in the reserves' protected status will be tolerated.
Then there are the thousands of subsistence farmers who are following their annual custom in setting the fires. Only on Friday did officials begin asking farmers in some states to suspend burning.
On a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, this reporter saw dozens of fires burning. And every day, poor local farmers armed with machetes and cans of kerosene could be seen ambling along - doing what they do every burning season.