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Durango's Cult of the Scorpion

For some residents of the Mexican state, the poisonous creatures are a means of survival. For scientists, they're a source for a new, controversial anti-sting serum.

December 22, 2000|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DURANGO, Mexico — Enrique Hernandez and two of his brothers are on the hunt, armed with 8-inch tweezers and a plastic jar. They poke boldly through the rubble in an empty lot behind their house and soon snatch the day's first trophy: a writhing, 2-inch-long scorpion.

Within half an hour, they've trapped 30 of the golden arachnids, whose slender pincers belie the ferocity of their sting. This species, Centruroides suffusus, can kill a child and inflict vicious pain on adults.

The eight Hernandez brothers have followed in their father's footsteps as alacraneros, or scorpion hunters, catching thousands of the creatures each summer. Most are mounted on the key rings, ashtrays, napkin holders and wall clocks that clutter the stalls of Durango's city market, a famed scorpion souvenir center. Some of the catch is sold for scientific research.

This flourishing industry is just one facet of Mexico's fear of and fascination with the scorpion, which predate the Spanish conquest in 1521. No wonder: About 200,000 people get stung each year, and scores die. Scorpions, almost unchanged in 450 million years, remain a source of widespread anxiety as well as a serious health scourge.

In recent years, Mexicans have counterattacked on multiple fronts. A relentless public health campaign has dramatically reduced the death rate, and a new Mexican-made antivenin serum is so effective that U.S. doctors want to import it. Cutting-edge Mexican research could even put the scorpion's venom to work fighting malaria in years to come.

Nowhere is the rich and complex scorpion culture as pervasive as in Durango, the northwestern state of which this city is the capital. The soccer team is named the Scorpions, and a scorpion grabs your cursor when you sign on to the official state Web site.

In fact, the figures don't bear out the reputation. The city's 550,000 people suffer about 2,000 stings a year, a fraction of the number reported in some states. And nobody died of a scorpion sting last year in Durango state. Fatalities are far more common in Guerrero and other Pacific Coast states such as Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima.

But Durango's fame is unshakable, thanks in part to legends like that of "the death cell." The story has it that in 1884, a man named Juan was unfairly jailed in Durango for accidentally killing a woman. He was put in the death cell, where no one had survived a single night because of a monster scorpion. The valiant Juan caught the "killer scorpion of the death cell" and survived. He was then pardoned and set free.

The tale is recounted by Betty Grace Santiesteban, a Durango city woman who went through her own ordeal thanks to scorpions.

Her older brother almost died as a child from a scorpion sting. She later moved into a house on a hill overlooking Durango where scorpions thrived. She recalls killing 100 or so in two years in her home. "One kept me awake in my bedroom until 4 a.m. This tiny thing was dominating my life," she says.

To overcome her fears, Santiesteban began learning about scorpions, gathering facts about the dangers, the symptoms of stings and the safeguards, "so I wouldn't have to live in such ignorance. And the truth set me free from those fears," she says.

To share her knowledge, Santiesteban, 49, lectures on radio programs, works with community groups and has written a slim volume, "The Realities of the Scorpion," which she printed herself.

"I have respect for them but no fear," she says. "There's a culture here--you learn to live with them. You shake your shoes before you put them on and shake out your sheets before getting into bed. You're constantly looking at the walls and ceilings. It's a survival mechanism."

Hunting Arachnids to Make Souvenirs

For the Hernandez brothers, scorpions are a means of survival. Their modest livelihood comes from the souvenirs the big family produces. They hunt scorpions from June to August, mostly in the countryside, and preserve the creatures in plastic jugs for use during the rest of the year.

"I believe we should sell the image of Durango as the capital of scorpions to bring more tourists here," Enrique Hernandez says. "And it's not dangerous in the good hotels in the city, only in the poor areas and wooden houses."

He says he's been stung 20 or so times in the 15 years he's been catching scorpions.

He and brothers Antonio and Alejandro often use a metal rod to stir the rocks and find the scorpions. Other times they use their bare hands. In an impromptu hunt in the lot behind their house, Enrique found several scorpions hidden in the rotten stump of a maguey plant. More scurried from trash that had been dumped on the lot.

This is a perfect urban breeding ground for scorpions, the kind that state authorities are constantly advising people to clean up. Other advice: Cover doorsteps with smooth tiles, which scorpions can't climb, and don't use rough wood or adobe bricks, which create cozy crevices.

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