Some call it a tempest in a teapot, but the latest storm in U.S.-Mexican relations centers on allegations that the scientists north of the border have been tampering with Mexico's weather, possibly with disastrous results.
The controversy suggests just how suspicious the Mexicans can be of "Yankee imperialist maneuvers," how much faith they still have in U.S. ingenuity -- especially if it has sinister overtones -- and how desperate this nation is as it faces its worst drought in 20 years.
The basic allegations, lodged by some Mexican officials and several Mexican newspapers, accuse the United States of stealing rain by diverting hurricanes from Mexico's shores. The villain in this scenario, for a change, is the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and its project "Stormfury."
According to the Mexican accounts, U.S. hurricane-hunter aircraft intercepted a storm named Ignacio off Mexico's Pacific Coast in October.The planes seeded Ignacio with silver iodide or some other material designed to increase precipitation, widen the eye of the storm and reduce its winds, the newspapers charge.
Ighacio was blasting north toward the parched states of Sonora and Sinaloa on Oct. 23; on Oct. 27 it suddenly changed direction, and by Oct. 30 it had disintegrated.
Ignacio's puzzling trajectory is a matter of fact, and there is also no question that U.S. hurricane hunters battered their way through its winds.
But the U.S. Embassy here steadfastly denies that the aircraft did anything more than record Ignacio's temperature and measure other vital signs. The flights, moreover, were authorized by the Mexican government.
As for Stormfury, the embassy said, the program of experimentation with hurricane control, began in 1961, has seeded only four storms, all of them in the Atlantic. The last one was Ginger in 1971, and the only one that showed any results from the treatment was Debbie in 1969, U.S. officials say.
Evidence indicates that other hurricanes have been seeded since then but without any discernible effect, according to metrorologists here.
Critics of the United States remain unsatisfied, however. The drought is already having a devastating impact and many Mexicans are intent on blaming the power of Uncle Sam before the forces of Mother Nature.
Mexico is dependent on the rains brought by tropical storms to supply the water requirements of many of the nation's farms, especially in the north. Last year Ignacio was the only hurricane that even came close and its mysterious demise has proved deadly for Mexican agriculture.
Food production is reportedly down 30 percent and Mexico will have to import 2 million more tons of grain than it had planned. Most of it will come from the United States.
As many as 4.5 million head of cattle are threatened and ranchers reportedly are slaughtering calves at birth to keep them from dying of thirst and hunger later. Combined with the heat wave that also has struck the western United States, the drought has turned parts of northern Mexico into a nearly unendurable oven.
But the effects do not end with the borders of the drought. Partly because reservoirs are so low, power cuts have been made throughout the country. In Mexico City for the last two weeks most neighborhoods have grown accustomed to blackouts 30 minutes or more every night.
It was just as the full extent of this crisis became obvious in mid-June that Capt. Silvino Aguilar Anguiano, director of the Mexican National Meteorological Service, first suggested that the drought might be the work of the Americans and that the connection ought to be investigated.
The idea took off like flames through dry tinder and for three weeks Mexican newspapers have run daily front-page headlines detailing the operations of Stormfury and conjecturing on its effects.
The widely respected newspaper Excelsior last week had a banner headline announcing that "The Hurricane Hunters Are Protecting Florida's Tourism."
Most of the headlines are based on speculation by some of Mexico's meterorologists suddenly thrust from academic obscurity into the national limelight.
The lead story in El Sol's midday edition Thursday, headlined "U.S. Aborting Typhoons Now," is typical of the toughest. After describing the history of Stormfury in the same terms as others have, Jose Briseno Muniz, "investigator" from the University of Guadalajara's Institute of Astronomy and Meteorology, describes the historic frequency of hurricanes hitting Mexican shores.
The article concluded that "the unforeseen but repeated absence of hurricanes from the Mexican coast in recent years, according to Briseno, after a natural 'custom' of centuries, can only be explained by the deliberate and effective program realized by the United States."
Yet some calm voices are heard in the midst of the tempest.
"It is an incontrovertible . . . truth [that] the United States has treated Mexico with extreme insolence, cruelty, abuse," a columnist wrote in the news and opinion magazine Razones. "But -- despite everything that has gone before -- we cannot keep presenting the United States as the author of every would we suffer or every stupidity we commit."
The speculation is so widespread, however, and the publicity so great, that despite the paucity of proof the hurricane crisis has demanded the attention of leading Mexican politicians.
At a lengthy press conference last week Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda devoted most of his time to meterology. He was scrupulously careful not to contradict the U.S. version of Stormfury's history but added that U.S. hurricane hunters will not be allowed to use Mexican airstrips this summer until the government completes an investigation.