According to authorities in Ecatepec, México state, 1 million liters of water are being stolen every day in the municipality, which adjoins the northeastern Mexico City borough of Gustavo A. Madero.
The crime generates huge profits for criminal groups that prey on people who are desperate for water, a resource that has become increasingly scarce in Ecatepec and many other parts of the country.
Mario Luna Escanamé, director of the Ecatepec water and sewer utility Sapase, said that an estimated 365 million liters are stolen annually from the local water service.
He said the quantity stolen on a daily basis would fill 100 pipas, or water tankers, each with a capacity for 10,000 liters. “That’s the size of the problem we’re seeing,” Luna said.
The only municipality where more water is stolen is Tijuana, the newspaper El Universal reported.
Sapase has identified numerous points where water has been illegally extracted in recent months, a period in which the incidence of the crime has increased significantly.
Most of the illegal taps were found in a part of Ecatepec known as the Quinta Zona, a densely populated area where water shortages are common.
“The most complicated area is the east of the municipality, where there are neighborhoods adjacent to the México state Outer Loop Road,” Luna said.
“They’re the most critical points because they depend 100% on the Cutzamala [water] system and if there’s a problem there, that area suffers a lot,” he said.
Thieves use pumps and hoses to extract water, according to El Universal, which witnessed the crime being committed in broad daylight. The stolen water is diverted into large containers in vehicles such as pickup trucks or vans, or to tanks in nearby houses and businesses.
Lookouts warn thieves if the police or Sapase personnel are approaching. The huachicoleros de agua, as the thieves are colloquially known, later sell the water to families whose homes are not connected to the water system.
El Universal reported that 1,000 liters are sold for 1,000 pesos (US $49) and thieves can make up to 100,000 pesos (US $4,900) per day. Groups specifically dedicated to the crime use sophisticated equipment to steal the water, Luna said.
“It’s clear that it’s now something that is very organized,” he said, adding that the crime is driven by supply and demand for water.
“There is a great need due to the more than 15 billion liters we haven’t received in the past 37 months,” the water utility chief said, referring to a reduction in supply from the México state water commission that has been exacerbated by theft.
One Ecatepec resident told El Universal that many families have no option but to buy water from thieves.
“That happens in several neighborhoods. … As we need water we have to buy it from them. We call them and they come,” said Belén, who lives in the Novela Mexicana neighborhood.
“We’re living in a vicious circle,” said Ricardo Galindo, a resident of the México Prehispánico neighborhood.
“The thieves take advantage of our need because we really need water. … There’s none in the faucet so we have to buy it. … We’re part of the problem but … we’ve lived [without running water] for many years,” he said.
While illicit water entrepreneurs steal large quantities of water, some Ecatepec residents, including business owners, connect hoses to illegal taps just to get enough water to satisfy their own needs.
But those quantities are also very large in some cases: one of the businesses taking free water is a laundromat, El Universal said.
The deputy director of Sapase said water theft affects the utility’s finances because less water reaches the homes of people who pay for the liquid.
Ecatepec authorities have initiated at least 13 investigations in the municipality but there have been no arrests.
Mayor Fernando Vilchis recently reached an agreement with the state government to crack down on the crime, which also occurs in other México state municipalities albeit not to the same extent as in Ecatepec.
State lawmakers with the Morena party have proposed a law that would jail water thieves for three years, but it has not yet been put to a vote in Congress.
With reports from El Universal