CAPULALPAN, Mexico — In this one-telephone village in the hills of Mexico's Oaxaca state, corn grows out of cracks in the sidewalks, along roadsides and anywhere else it can find soil.
That may sound like a farmer's utopia, but for people in Capulalpan and a host of other mountain settlements where corn is a staple of every family's diet, it is more like an aberration of nature.
Local and foreign scientists have concluded the mysterious, ubiquitous corn variety is genetically modified, and illegal.
The presence of the modified corn amid local corn varieties is not yet alarming, but scientists warn it could usurp the hardier Oaxaca corn quickly unless it is stopped soon.
Transgenic strains were found in 15 of 22 communities in these hills and in 3 percent to 10 percent of plants in the fields sampled.
"What's frightening is how fast it has spread," said Yolanda Lara, spokeswoman for Oaxaca's non-governmental Rural Development Agency. "The government must put a stop to this."
Mexicans, who see their country as the birthplace of the centuries-old maize crop, are appalled by the discovery of genetically modified corn in their most far-flung highlands.
And speculation that the modified corn reached their lands in government trucks carrying subsidized kernels to community stores has fired that outrage still further.
Cultivating genetically modified corn has been prohibited in Mexico since 1998, although it is imported from the United States for human consumption.
Village elders for whom corn is a way of life in the Oaxaca highlands first raised the alarm that a wild strain of corn was invading their native or so-called "Creole" maize.
"This corn is going to waste away our creoles," said Lino Martinez, the 81-year-old farmer of a small corn plot in nearby La Trinidad, perched on a steep mountainside with cornfields snaking up and down its slopes.
In La Trinidad, even the dentist's office has a corn patch for a back yard.
Biologists used DNA-testing on the "wild" corn and discovered that it was genetically modified. The University of California at Berkeley confirmed local findings in November, prompting demands that the Mexican government halt imports of transgenic corn.
With the presence of alien corn confirmed, activists are now going after its presumed source.
Residents in Capulalpan and a string of surrounding villages claim the corn arrived on government trucks dispensing low-cost basic food items to people in the area, where almost every house is flanked by a cornfield.
"Wherever those kernels fell, off the backs of the trucks, from bags carried from the store, the corn would grow," said Olga Toro Maldonada, 39, who cultivates corn in her back yard to help feed her six children.
"It even grows out of the concrete."
She claims the corn has been in the village for several years and is readily available at the local government store. Locals say the modified corn kernels are larger, differently colored and don't taste as sweet as native varieties.
Maldonada began planting the kernels herself three years ago, curious to see how they would grow. She says at least five other families in Capulalpan followed suit.
The results were remarkable, at first.
"The first crop was marvelous, yielding two or three head of corn per plant instead of one," said Maldonada as she walked through her tiny corn patch, pointing out varieties of maize she said were Creole, genetically modified and mixed.
It takes between four and five head of corn to create one kilogram of maize for tortillas, the nation's main staple food, so the new corn strain at first seemed to be a godsend.
But the windfall soured as Maldonada noticed that while the corn grew anywhere and with very little water, it was highly susceptible to plague once ripe.
She only stopped harvesting the maize after being told it was genetically modified and still an unknown quantity in the science world, where the impact of transgenics on the environment is unclear.
Scientists and environmentalists say they are concerned the transgenic maize could usurp the Creole variety, which has become largely resistant to local plagues and diseases.
Officials at the government's basic foods distribution program, Diconsa, which sells subsidized corn to 23,000 stores nationwide, deny claims they distribute the corn and say their maize is grown locally or bought from local distributors.
Diconsa director general Fernando Lopez Toledo told Reuters in a telephone interview that imported corns are only bought when national production does not suffice.
Sources in Mexico could not identify U.S. companies exporting the corn, which is transported in bulk and distributed among Mexican buyers. Mexico imports some 6 million tons of corn each year to make up for deficit production, although Diconsa buys only a fraction of that.
"And that maize is certified by sanitary authorities in the country of origin and by authorities here in Mexico," said Lopez, pledging to open Diconsa's 300 or so warehouses to inspection to prove they were free of transgenics.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace maintain the government is distributing the modified corn nationwide.
"Diconsa is importing it and distributing it throughout the country," said Hector Magallon, in charge of Greenpeace's campaign to prevent the contamination of Mexico's biodiversity with transgenics.
Most people in Capulalpan have no doubt the corn came from Diconsa. They point to two giant corn stalks growing from patches of grass outside the agency's store as proof.
The sales clerk at the Diconsa store here also says that a portion of the corn he sells is transgenic. "You can tell because the kernels are slightly bigger and the color is a bit off," he said.
More scientific proof comes from the laboratory at the USACHI agricultural research center in La Trinidad. The lab discovered transgenic strains in samples of corn sold at the local Diconsa stores, agronomists said.
"We were alarmed when we found that the source of this corn was the government," said Lilia Perez, a local agronomist who spent 20 days at Berkeley learning to identify DNA that has been genetically modified.
"It is horrible we are actually being sold this corn."