Two astronomical observatories in Mexico have scaled back access and operations because of security threats, Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE) in San Andrés Cholula announced on 5 February. The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) and the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC) are both located on the Sierra Negra volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla. The highway leading to the mountain has become a target for carjackings and robberies in recent weeks, as a fight intensifies between the Mexican government and fuel thieves. Scientists and technical staff have stopped visits to the HAWC, canceling a planned repair trip, while the LMT has reduced its scientific operations to “the bare minimum level,” says INAOE astrophysicist and LMT Director David Hughes. “I cannot responsibly continue the scientific operation of the telescope until these issues are addressed.”
The LMT is a single-dish telescope that works at millimeter wavelengths. The joint U.S.-Mexico project is part of the worldwide Event Horizon Telescope that is trying to image a black hole. Normally, the LMT would host scientists for observations at night and maintenance and engineering crews during the day. It was poised to start observations with a new 50-meter dish, up from 32 meters, before what Hughes calls “a severe security incident” caused him to dramatically reduce operations. He declined to describe the incident or say exactly what is being done to protect employees and collaborators.
The HAWC has been less affected. The observatory, also a joint U.S.-Mexico project, looks for gamma rays and cosmic rays that bombard Earth by recording the blue glow of Cherenkov radiation produced when these high-energy particles pass through large tanks of purified water. Unlike the LMT, it is operated remotely, which means it can “continue with normal operations, taking data day and night,” says Andrés Sandoval Espinosa, an astrophysicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and a HAWC spokesperson. So far, its researchers and personnel have not been threatened or harmed. But a planned visit for equipment repairs has been canceled, says Petra Hüntemeyer, an astrophysicist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton and a HAWC spokesperson. “We decided to be on the safe side.”
This is the first time that security threats have had such a dramatic effect on both observatories. The Sierra Negra region has become a center of a government crackdown on organized crime groups that steal oil and gasoline from pipelines to sell on the black market. Much of the fuel destined for Mexico City passes through pipelines in the region around Sierra Negra. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has temporarily shut down some pipelines and sent soldiers to guard others. Criminal groups have intensified their efforts and violence in response.