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The day that the ground opened up in Mexico’s Puebla State: ‘We looked outside and saw the earth moving’

A huge sinkhole has caused a family to lose their home in Santa María Zacatepec. While the authorities and scientists investigate the phenomenon, the small village has become a tourist attraction

An aerial view of the sinkhole in Santa María Zacatepec, taken on June 1 (Spanish-language video).PHOTO | VIDEO: TERESA DE MIGUEL
Santa María Zacatepec (Puebla) - 07 Jun 2021 - 12:03 UTC

Sitting on a mound a few meters away from a sinkhole that since last Saturday has been causing consternation among the population of Santa María Zacatepec, in Mexico’s Puebla State, Magdalena Xalamihua looks on with sadness as she witnesses several years’ work on the verge of being swallowed up by the earth. Xalamihua, her husband and their two children had only just moved into the house they had put their bodies and souls into building when they were forced to abandon it. At 6.30pm on May 29, a strange hole started to form to the side of the house, as if a monster from a science fiction movie was sucking the ground down from the Earth’s corre. Initially it measured eight meters but it continued to expand quickly until, just hours later, it had become a massive cavity from which sprung water like a Biblical miracle. “We heard something like a rumbling,” says Xalamihua. “We thought it was fireworks, but we looked outside and saw the earth moving and water coming up, like waves. We ran.” Xalamihua still remembers what happened that afternoon with horror. She looks bitterly toward her house, a brick construction that is teetering on the edge of an abyss. “Where are we going to live now?” she asks. Over her head, a huge dark cloud threatens a storm, adding another layer to the chilling scene in Zacatepec.

Local and federal authorities have been curious onlookers at the site of the phenomenon, where the National Guard have cordoned off a wide area around the sinkhole and are patrolling the perimeter to ensure nobody approaches the chasm. Dozens of people have made their way to Zacatepec, drawn in by the media interest in the event, with the press as eager as the scientific community to give answers as to just what happened in this small farming community. Until May 29, life here passed with little more on people’s minds than the coming of the rain and the sun to nurture the fields of corn and legumes.

People have come from the surrounding area to view the phenomenon.
People have come from the surrounding area to view the phenomenon.Teresa de Miguel

Xalamihua explains that on May 15 the family had been living in their house for a year and on May 16 her daughter, María Lisbeth, turned 13. The family decided to hold a double celebration with lunch and a cake. Their home was the fruit of more than a decade of hard work. Heriberto Sánchez had worked as a bricklayer’s assistant and his wife in a nearby restaurant to buy the land and build their long-awaited family home. A migrant from an indigenous region of Veracruz, Xalamihua had been excited to start a new life, in a promised land rich in fertile volcanic soil and free from the violence afflicting her native state. “Together we earned up to 3,000 pesos a month to finish the payments on the land,” says Heriberto. There were many hardships, because almost all of the money was set aside to achieve their dream. But now it has turned into a nightmare and the distressed family are now hoping the state authorities will help them in their hour of need.

At time of writing, Puebla State Governor Miguel Barbosa had not visited Zacatepec but he had admitted that the situation is a “matter of enormous risk.” Barbosa has told his constituents that he will “remain vigilant” to prevent a human tragedy from unfolding. “It’s a geological fault that must be treated with the utmost caution, technically and with all preventive measures in place,” the governor said. A team of geologists from the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla are working on a report as to what occurred in Zacatepec, using their years of experience studying the sulfuric eruptions of the Popocatépetl volcano that dominates these vast plains. The authorities have said that a technical report could be ready by the end of June. But the university team are not the only experts who have cast their gaze over the Zacatepec sinkhole.

Delfino Hernández is a geological engineer at the Geological Hazards Laboratory of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM). Hernández and his team were due to arrive in Zacatepec at the weekend to look into the sinkhole after following developments closely in the media. Before examining the situation on the ground, Hernández said that the most likely explanation was a natural phenomenon, an active fault line that was waiting for a push from nature to display its power. “These faults are already present within the soil. They may have existed for 5,000 to 10,000 years before being reactivated. It just needs nature to provide the impact so that they appear on the surface. This phenomenon, as far as I can see, was going to happen sooner or later,” Hernández says. These phenomena occur, adds the geologist, because in certain areas the ground has “weaknesses,” places where the soil is in constant movement. It is not something that occurs without “warning,” he noted: geologists can keep watch on small fractures and fissures that can later lead to incidents like the Zacatepec sinkhole. “A fault is a zone of fractures along which there has been a displacement of blocks of rock in the crust. It is a discontinuity that forms due to the breaking up of large rocks in the earth. If this fault is said to be 20 meters deep, which is how it appears, it is likely that is far deeper underneath.”

What could have triggered the sinkhole in Zacatepec? “Puebla State commonly has earthquakes that occur before they reach Mexico City. We don’t know with certainty if there were after-effects from the 2017 earthquake, but taking into account the size of the fracture it could be that the soils have been weakened and it would only require humidity for them to become detached,” says Hernández, adding that the sinkhole has filled with water due to subterranean filtration. Hernández points out that in Puebla there have been no geotechnical studies or mapping of geological risks carried out, which is why the Zacatepec incident came as such a surprise. “What needs to be done is to stop looking at the sinkhole and start looking in the area surrounding it, to see if there are other fractures of a similar size or smaller ones. A study needs to be carried out immediately, cartographical mapping with aerial photographs and continuous monitoring to see if they are moving on a daily basis,” the geologist states.

Magdalena Xalamihua’s house, on the edge of the sinkhole.
Magdalena Xalamihua’s house, on the edge of the sinkhole.Teresa de Miguel

While scientific experts continue to investigate, Santa María Zacatepec has become an attraction for residents of Puebla. Local police have been forced to close the dusty side street that leads to the sinkhole to prevent a traffic jam on ground that has already proven itself to be fragile. Whole families descend on the site to witness the phenomenon first hand. Many are disappointed on arrival, because the area has been sealed off and from a distance all it is possible to make out is a large splash of black.

Nicasio Torres, 62, has lived in Zacatepec all his life. He says he has never seen anything like this before and shares the fears of his neighbors. “We worry that it will continue to get bigger,” he says after arriving at the sinkhole on an old bicycle. “What is going to happen to us? Are they going to evacuate us? We don’t have anywhere to go!” he stresses, while nearby a woman with her children offers candy to curious day-trippers. Standing next to Torres is Jorge, a portly resident of the area. He adds there is a general preoccupation among neighboring communities over the sinkhole. “Where I live people are asking what is happening over here. They’re worried. We don’t know what to do. We can only wait an see what the authorities’ report says.” The day-trippers have similar questions for the journalists covering the incident, eager to satisfy their own curiosity. What do you know? Has there been a study? Have you spoken to the experts? Are the authorities doing anything? A reporter flies a drone over the area and men, women, children and senior citizens gather around, desperate to see images of the huge sinkhole.

A local takes a selfie with the sinkhole in the background.
A local takes a selfie with the sinkhole in the background.Teresa de Miguel

Xalamihua finds so much rubber-necking distasteful. She asks that people think about her situation because she is fed up with being asked so many questions as she and her family have been the most-affected by the geological fault. She knows she has lost her house, her children’s inheritance, for good and her concern now is where they are going to live. She asks that the local mayor, the state governor and the president of Mexico do something to help. “It’s tough to take and it’s sad. Our whole life was there,” she says through red eyes. The dark cloud over her head begins to spit out fat drops of rain that form small puddles on this treacherous soil while, in the distance, the wind whips furiously across the surface water of the new lake of Zacatepec.

English version by Rob Train.

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