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Illicit water trade worsening hydraulic crisis in state of Mexico

Residents of Ecatepec, north of Mexico City, say they have gone months without running water and are forced to buy it from what they described as a “mafia.”

ECATEPEC, Mexico (CN) — Adriana Rojas and her neighbors have paid their annual water bills and have the receipts to prove it. But water has not run through her pipes for five months.

“We have to buy it from the huachicoleros,” she said, using the Mexican Spanish word for gasoline and petroleum thieves. 

As the illicit trade in water has grown in recent years in the densely populated city of Ecatepec, just north of Mexico City in neighboring Mexico State, the word has been applied to members of organized criminal groups that illegally tap public water lines and sell it back to residents at exorbitant prices. 

“The 1,000-liter tankers are there in the street, sometimes double tankers,” said Rojas, 47, pointing down the avenue that runs near her home. “That’s where they steal the water.”

“It’s a mafia,” said Irma Berrocal López, 71, a neighbor of Rojas’ who has not had running water for over a month. She accused the municipal government of colluding with criminal groups to conduct the illicit water trade in Ecatepec. 

“And we’re the ones who get screwed,” she said. “We call the authorities and say that we need water, but no one pays attention to us.”

Ecatepec Mayor Fernando Vilchis depicts the problem as one of infrastructure, supply and politics.

“It’s a political matter,” he told a resident without water who approached him at the inauguration of a newly paved street in her neighborhood on Tuesday. “I’m responsible for making the system work. Around 97% of wells are working.”

Vilchis added that there are a number of wells for which he does “not have the key, other authorities have them.” His government has been digging wells in the city to tap into aquifers to make up for the dwindling supply from the Cutzamala river basin water supply system, which is the main source of water for the greater metropolitan area of Mexico City, as well as parts of neighboring states.

Comprised of seven main reservoirs, the Cutzamala system is currently at just 53.3% capacity, according to Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua). Over 30% of the system is classified as experiencing extreme drought. 

A representative of the Ecatepec municipal government reviews receipts of paid water bills presented to him by residents who have gone weeks and months without running water on Feb. 7, 2023. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The statistics do little to alleviate the concern of Rojas and her neighbors, who only have to walk down the street to see that there is water in their city, just not in their homes. They regularly see tankers lined up to illegally extract it from the well nearby, spilled water puddling in the street. 

Some residents with dry taps brought their water bills from the last three years to show municipal officials that not only have they been paying their annual bills, but that the cost for water they are now not receiving has more than doubled in that time.

When asked by Courthouse News what his administration would do to curb the illicit water trade in his city, Vilchis said that his government “has executed the most arrests and operations against people who, in this case, extract water — perhaps — illegally.”

Vilchis, of the ruling Morena party, is not a career politician, but rather a former taxi driver who led a group of pirate taxis that were allowed to operate in parts of Ecatepec if they paid a bribe to the organization, according to the newspaper Reforma. Drivers in the group also reported being obligated to attend political marches and meetings for Vilchis as part of their dues.

Ecatepec’s water crisis is “multifactorial,” according to Maribel Espinosa Castillo, a socio-urban and environmental researcher at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico. One issue is the muddy subsoil of the area built on what was once a broad bed of a lake that was completely drained over the course of decades in the 20th century.

Ecatepec resident Guillermina Salas, who has gone three weeks without running water, interrupts a speech by Mayor Fernando Vilchis (in black vest) to demand the city distribute water to their homes on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

This loose subsoil moves during rains, floods and earthquakes, wreaking havoc on underground infrastructure. It can cause water mains to sink, break and become obstructed. 

“There is not the capacity to supply water to all the neighborhoods and homes in Ecatepec,” she said.

Furthermore, the uptick in well digging under Vilchis’ administration could have dire consequences for the area. Pumping water out of aquifers creates hollow spaces in the already porous subsoil, which can cause structures to sink into the ground, which Espinosa has already observed in Ecatepec, or even sinkhole collapses. 

“The ground is giving way,” she said. “If the government is going to drill wells, that is going to lead to an acceleration of the subsidence in the urban area.”

Espinosa, herself a resident of Ecatepec who is also forced to purchase pirated water but did not attend Tuesday’s event, confirmed that the illicit water trade does exist in her city. However, she was unable to provide data on how much is being extracted. 

“What I do know is that the sale of water — what they’re now calling the huachicoleo of water — is for the time being the system of water distribution in Ecatepec,” she said.

Ecatepec resident Guillermina Salas told Courthouse News that she has had to purchase stolen water ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began thanks to sporadic cuts in the supply. 

“My message to the mayor is that he give us water once and for all, because I, at least, am paying my taxes,” she said just before interrupting Vilchis’ speech to make that demand in front of the small crowd that gathered for Tuesday’s event. 

Her neighbor Patricia Espinosa Gutiérrez, 57, had a more concise and clear-cut message for the mayor: “We cannot live without water.”

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