The Sinkhole That Swallowed a Mexican Farm

On May 29, 2021, a boom reverberated through Santa María Zacatepec, a small town near the city of Puebla, in central Mexico. At first, the sound might have been mistaken for one of the earthquakes or small volcanic eruptions that are common in the area. Then some local children told their mother that a strange hole had appeared in the farmland behind their house. When civil-protection officers arrived the next morning, the hole was about thirty feet wide, or the length of two cars parked bumper to bumper. Police cordoned off the area, but pieces of earth kept falling in.

In the weeks that followed, the sinkhole filled with muddy water and appeared to ingest the land around it. The residents of the house, which was soon perched on a cliff, had to move out. Dogs fell in and firemen rescued them; journalists showed up from far and wide. Tourists took selfies and paid five pesos to visit a hilltop viewing station that some locals had set up. They shopped for snacks, alcohol, and bottled water at a market that popped up around the sinkhole. The opening, which was almost perfectly circular, grew to more than four hundred feet wide, or longer than a football field, and a hundred and forty-six feet deep.

Santa María Zacatepec sits on top of the Puebla Valley aquifer, an underground basin that began forming more than two hundred and fifty million years ago. At seven hundred and eighty square miles, it is small in comparison to Mexico’s largest aquifers, but it is constantly refilled by rainfall that flows down from the surrounding volcanoes. Tens of billions of gallons of water are extracted from it each year. A few weeks after the sinkhole formed, CONAGUA—the Comisión Nacional del Agua, or National Water Commission, tasked with managing Mexico’s national water resources—issued a statement blaming it on natural causes. “No evidence exists that the cause of the sinkhole has been the overextraction of the aquifer,” the agency said. But, soon after, a scientific report, which was cited by the state government of Puebla, came to a different conclusion. It connected the sinkhole, in part, to the “intense subterranean water usage observed over the last fifteen years in the zone of Santa María Zacatepec.” (The report bore the logo of the National Polytechnic Institute, though the institute later claimed that it had not sanctioned the study.)

Twenty-three thousand people live in the rural municipality that surrounds Santa María Zacatepec, and, because many of them have no access to centralized tap water, they rely on shallow wells. But in recent years many businesses have tapped into the aquifer, from farms to pharmaceutical firms and textile factories. Extraction of the aquifer is regulated by CONAGUA, but, as the water is siphoned off for more and more uses, residents told me that they have needed to dig deeper.

One company in particular has become the target of a protest movement: Bonafont, a subsidiary of the Danone group that operates several water-bottling plants in Mexico, including one near Santa María Zacatepec. For years, Pueblos Unidos, a local alliance of water-rights activists whose name translates to United Peoples, has been protesting companies that tap into the aquifer. The activists point out that some residents, facing dry wells, now have little choice but to buy their own community’s drinking water from corporations. In March, 2021, they organized a demonstration that shut down Bonafont’s local plant. And when the sinkhole opened, two months later and only a mile away, they wondered whether they had another reason to protest.

On August 8, 2021, Pueblos Unidos cut through the lock on the plant’s main gate and rushed inside. They shuttered the compound and painted clausurado—closed—in red letters on Bonafont’s industrial well. At a press conference, they announced that the occupied site would become a community center known as Altepelmecalli in Nahuatl and Casa de los Pueblos in Spanish—in English, House of the Peoples. The next day, a Bonafont press release condemned the activists for “illegal entry” and “acts of vandalism and violence” against its facility and security personnel.

A Bonafont bottling plant, which was occupied by activists, pictured on September 1, 2021.Photograph by Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty

This past fall, after the sinkhole formed and the protesters occupied the plant, I visited Santa María Zacatepec and its surrounding towns. The drive on Federal Highway 190 was dry and hot and lined with truck-repair shops, building-supply stores, and rest stops.

When I reached the Bonafont plant, the teen-age son of a Pueblos Unidos member hopped in the car with me and directed me to his grandmother’s well. As we drove, he asked me what video games I like to play and pointed out houses where local huachicoleros—fuel bandits—were rumored to live. As we approached the town of Nextetelco, the land started to look greener.

Several Pueblos Unidos members had converged on the well to fill up their blue water barrels. (They did not drink the leftover water in the plant.) We peered into its depths as they explained how local wells are built. Brick stabilizes the walls, they said, and periodic cavities serve as footholds for anyone who needs to climb down. Locals, I learned, save up to afford the services of a pocero, or artisanal well digger; when they hit water, it’s common for neighbors to come drink and eat in celebration. Each well has a godfather who offers prayers and brings food to share, and if young children are having trouble speaking they’re given the water as a sort of tonic. After all the barrels were full, I followed a Pueblos Unidos pickup truck, which was now sloshing with water, back to the plant.

I met Miguel López Vega, a well-known pocero and Pueblos Unidos activist, near the highway in a makeshift kitchen. His hair was thick and brown and he wore a cotton necklace; he didn’t cover his face like most Pueblos Unidos members. As activists cooked and made coffee for those who were occupying the plant, López Vega told me that he started worrying about the water supply several years ago. In November, 2019, he said, he dug more than a hundred feet into the ground without finding water. He was alarmed when he ran out of climbing rope. “There should’ve been water there,” López Vega said.

The following January, López Vega encountered more empty springs. Small tunnels that used to send high-pressure water into his wells were now offering a trickle at best. He often had to walk away from dry holes without finding water for a family. Many would scrape together more funds so he could dig a bit farther, but he couldn’t guarantee them anything.

López Vega believes that these encounters were not caused by drought, which have affected the region for years. He started chatting with neighbors who worked at the nearby Bonafont plant, he told me, and was surprised to learn that it seemed to have plenty of water. He said the workers told him that they were expected to fill one garrafón—a plastic jug that holds twenty litres of water—per second. Social-media posts began to claim that Bonafont was pumping four hundred and thirty-three thousand gallons of water out of the ground each day. (In a statement, Bonafont told me that the company is “rigorously complying with the concessions and current rights granted by CONAGUA,” and that the numbers in social-media posts were “totally inconsistent” with the equipment in the plant and the water rights granted to the company.) López Vega is convinced that Bonafont has drained water from the places he digs wells. “As a pocero, it’s clear to me that it’s the same water,” he told me.

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