President López Obrador says the crackdown on fuel thieves will intensify

Mexico pipeline blast kills 71 and injures dozens more

By Emmanuel Justices

Suspected fuel thieves have been blamed for rupturing the pipeline

Mexican authorities now put the number killed in Friday night’s fuel pipeline blast at 71, with scores more injured.

It is believed the explosion occurred after the line was ruptured by suspected fuel thieves in the town of Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo state.

Officials say scores of people had been scrambling to fill up containers and were engulfed in an inferno.

Dozens of charred bodies remain at the scene, which is cordoned off by security forces.

Local people said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new policy to crack down on fuel theft had created shortages.

“Everyone came to see if they could get a bit of gasoline for their car,” farmer Isaias García told Reuters news agency. “There isn’t any in petrol stations.”

What’s the latest on casualties?

The new death toll was announced delivered by Hidalgo state governor Omar Fayad.

Among the 71 injured were three women and a child of 12, he said.

Relatives gather at the scene as forensic workers carry out inspections
Relatives gather at the scene as forensic workers carry out inspections

Distraught relatives continued to gather at site of the explosion.

Forensic experts have been photographing remains amid a backdrop of burned clothing and discarded fuel buckets.

What exactly happened on Friday?

Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company, said the fire had been caused by illegal tapping.

It is believed thieves drilled through the pipeline. Images before the explosion showed a large jet of liquid rising into the air.

Map

Some locals criticised security forces at the scene for not warning people more forcibly to get away from the leaking fuel.

Mr Durazo told broadcaster Televisa: “At some point there were too many people there and the army and military personnel withdrew to avoid problems.” That was shortly before the blast occurred.

But President López Obrador defended the army against criticism, saying they were right not to confront such a large crowd.

He also avoided criticising the people, saying if they had to resort to “extremes” by stealing fuel “it’s because they were abandoned”.

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A few litres of fuel are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.

What is the fuel theft problem?

Fuel theft, known locally as “huachicoleo” (or moonshining) is rampant in some Mexican communities.

The government has said the practice cost the country about $3bn (£2.3bn) last year.

Mexican President López Obrador in gaggle of press (19 January)
President López Obrador says the crackdown on fuel thieves will intensify

President López Obrador, who took office in December, has launched a major crackdown. Thousands of marines have been deployed to guard pipelines, some of which have been shut down altogether in places.

The policy has led to increased reliance on tanker deliveries and there have been widespread reports of long lines at petrol stations.

After the blast, Mr Fayad issued a plea on Twitter to try to avoid further disasters.

“I urge the entire population not to be complicit in fuel theft,” Mr Fayad posted (in Spanish). “Apart from being illegal, it puts your life and those of your families at risk. What happened today in Tlahuelilpan should not be repeated.”

President López Obrador vowed to press on with his anti-theft policy until it was eradicated.

“Rather than stopping the strategy, the fight against the illegality and theft of fuel, it will be strengthened,” he told reporters.

Pemex has suffered a number of other deadly accidents in the past.

At least 37 people were killed in an explosion at its Mexico City headquarters in 2013 and another 26 died in a fire at a gas facility in 2012.

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