Focus sharpens on Mexico fuel theft plan after blast kills 79
(Adds comments from Mexican president)
By Anthony Esposito
TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico, Jan 20 (Reuters) - A blast at a
gasoline pipeline in Mexico that killed at least 79 people has
put renewed attention on the government's strategy to stop fuel
theft, with some relatives saying fuel shortages stemming from
the plan led victims to risk their lives.
Fuel thieves punctured the Tula-Tuxpan pipeline a few miles
from one of Mexico's main refineries on Friday. Up to 800 people
flocked to fill plastic containers from the 7-meter (23-ft)
gasoline geyser that ensued, officials say. A couple of hours
later, it erupted in flames in a powerful explosion.
Half a dozen people interviewed by Reuters on Saturday said
their relatives went to the leaking duct in Tlahuelilpan
district in Hidalgo state because they struggled to find fuel
elsewhere and were desperate to fill up cars to get to work or
run their farms.
"A lot of innocent people came here, perhaps their car
didn't have enough gasoline for tomorrow, and they said I'm just
going to go for a few liters," said farmer Isidoro Velasco, 51,
who was waiting for news of his nephew Mario Hidalgo, who he
believed was likely killed. Hidalgo would have turned 34 on
Late last month, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
launched a program to shut down an illegal fuel distribution
network that siphons off about $3 billion worth of fuel annually
from state oil firm Pemex.
The plan, which called for shutting pipelines targeted by
thieves, led to widespread gasoline shortages in central Mexico
this month, including in Hidalgo, north of Mexico City.
Lopez Obrador said on Sunday that the disaster had not
weakened his resolve to fight fuel theft.
"I won't take a single step backwards," he told a press
conference. "I can only offer people apologies, if this action
causes sacrifices, harm and inconveniences. But we have to do
He said he hoped supply would normalize next week, as Mexico
buys more tanker trucks for distribution by road.
Most gas stations in Tlahuelilpan were operating normally on
Sunday, after being closed on Saturday.
Polls show the measures have until now enjoyed fairly broad
public support, despite the difficulties and long lines at gas
The tragedy in Tlahuelilpan, however, has brought renewed
scrutiny of the strategy. Lopez Obrador has repeatedly been
asked why soldiers deployed to guard the duct did not chase
people away from the leak, and how quickly the pipeline was shut
down after Pemex detected the rupture.
Pemex closed a valve at the pipeline after noting a drop in
pressure from the leak, Pemex Chief Executive Officer Octavio
Romero said at a press conference on Saturday. Pemex was aware
of the leak at 1650 local time, but did not say at what time the
valve was shut, he added.
Fuel spurted from the pipeline for around two hours after
Pemex alerted other authorities to the leak, with no visible
loss of pressure, before the explosion.
Lopez Obrador said prosecutors will investigate, but that
even if the valve were closed immediately there still would have
been 10,000 barrels of high octane gasoline in the section of
pipeline between the Tula refinery and the village.
The defense ministry and Lopez Obrador said the army, which
had just 25 soldiers present, did not want to hold back the
Critics say authorities should have called for
reinforcements and been firmer in sealing the area.
"Part of the blame goes to the people (at the ruptured
pipeline) but the bigger blame lies with authorities who let
them go there knowing it was dangerous," said Velasco, the
Lopez Obrador said the soldiers told villagers not to get
close, but that they were ignored.
The Tula-Tuxpan pipeline delivers fuel to other central
states, raising the possibility that its closure for repairs
after the explosion could worsen fuel supply problems, including
in car hub Guanajuato.
Romero said the pipeline had been out of service since late
December while the government tried to secure it from gangs who
had hit it 10 times in Tlahuelilpan. Since the pipeline was
reopened on Jan. 16, he said, it has been hit four times.
(Additional reporting and writing by Frank Jack Daniel and
Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and
First Published: 2019-01-20 16:09:27
Updated 2019-01-20 20:29:08
© 2019 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved. Reuters content is the intellectual property of Thomson Reuters or its third party content providers. Any copying, republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. "Reuters" and the Reuters Logo are trademarks of Thomson Reuters and its affiliated companies.