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If He Builds It, Will They Come?

People in this sleepy hamlet are so sure they have been receiving otherworldly visitors, they want to build a UFO landing strip to welcome them.

A bright green sign along a lonely country road in southwestern Puerto Rico proudly displays a silhouette of a flying saucer and two words: "Extraterrestrial Route."

Most Puerto Ricans laughed when a horse farmer installed the sign on his property at the request of Reynaldo Rios, a local elementary school teacher who says he's been communicating with alien visitors to this U.S. territory since he was a child.

Rios, a 39-year-old with a goatee and a shock of dark hair, won't be ignored. With the blessing of a local government desperate for tourist dollars, he's dedicated himself to building the UFO landing strip.

"I can't say exactly when they will come, but I know it will happen," Rios said. "I want to keep believing in my dreams."

Lajas Mayor Marcos Irizarry's support for the idea has provoked outrage among islanders who complained it would be a waste of money at a time when the government is encouraging thousands of employees to shorten their work week to cope with a staggering fiscal deficit.

"What nonsense," said Luis Arocho, 47, sipping coffee with friends in a cafe in historic Old San Juan. "This country is in crisis, and since politicians are incapable of creating jobs, they create fantasies."

Irizarry quickly clarified that his municipal government would not invest in the project. Instead, he has promised to help Rios get the proper building permits.

The mayor insists his goal is to attract tourists to his small town.

But he is also among Lajans who believe they have seen UFOs in the area.

"It's a very mysterious place," said Irizarry, who says he once saw red lights zigzagging above the hills. "A lot of people have seen things."

Francisco Negron, the farmer who put up the sign and allows UFO watchers to gather at his ranch, volunteered his property for the landing strip. He and Rios estimate the project could cost up to US$100,000 and are looking for funds from private companies.

Negron, a soft-spoken grandfather, has already applied for a permit to build a road to Indian Hill, the chosen site for the strip. Negron and others believe a UFO crashed on the hill in 1997. They claim they heard a boom and saw the hill go up in flames.

Rios, who leads a group called "UFO International" that holds nighttime vigils to search for signs of alien life, lets Negron worry about details like investment costs and permits while he envisions the design. The landing strip would be 80-feet long and have pyramids as control towers because aliens are attracted to the shape.

The mayor hopes that UFO enthusiasts will flock to Lajas as they have to Roswell, New Mexico, the site of a supposed UFO crash in the 1940s. Hundreds of visitors have already come to check out the Extraterrestrial Route since the sign went up, Irizarry said.

Puerto Rico is already known for its Arecibo Observatory and its 1,000-foot parabolic receiver that astronomers really do use to search for extraterrestrial life. The huge dish, in northern Puerto Rico, made a cameo appearance in the 1997 film "Contact," starring Jodi Foster as an astronomer who picks up a signal from extratraterrestrials.

But it's a little-known aerostat off the Extraterrestrial Route that inspires UFO lore in Lajas. The U.S. military uses the aerostat, a tethered blimp with a radar system, to detect low-flying drug smuggling planes.

But many Lajans don't believe that. Even Irizarry has suggested that the aerostat's true purpose is to detect UFOs.

A paved road leading to the blimp curves out of sight between two hills. Two signs warn against trespassing. Rios claims he was once briefly detained while trying to see the aerostat.

The school teacher says he first encountered aliens at 13. He says white lights burst into his bedroom, entered his body and cured him of a back injury he had received during a basketball game.

In Lajas, people who have grown up hearing reports of UFO sightings seem more open to his scheme.

"If we have the technology to reach the moon, there could be others who have the technology to come here," said Ronaldo Barea, 26, a sandwich shop owner.

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