Friday 19 July 2019

Scores killed in Mexican fuel pipe theft blaze

People collect fuel as the pipe spews petrol. Photo: Reuters
People collect fuel as the pipe spews petrol. Photo: Reuters

Mark Stevenson

A huge fireball which engulfed people scooping up fuel spilling from a pipeline ruptured by thieves in Mexico last Friday killed 66 people and badly burned 71 others, with 85 people still missing

The blast came only three weeks after Mexico's new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs who drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day.

With crowds of townspeople often involved, either aiding thieves or collecting spilled fuel in primitive containers, it was only a matter of time before a fire occurred.

In fact, they have happened before, but seldom with the scale and horrifying death toll of last Friday's fire in the state of Hidalgo, which came as people collected the spilled petrol in buckets, plastic jugs and garbage cans.

The leak was caused by an illegal pipeline tap in the small town of Tlahuelilpan, about 100km north of Mexico City, according to state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex.

Video footage showed dozens of residents in an almost festive atmosphere as whole families gathered in a field as a geyser of fuel spouted dozens of feet into the air from the tap.

Footage then showed flames shooting high into the air against a night sky and the pipeline ablaze. Screaming people ran from the flames, some themselves burning and waving their arms.

Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad said 21 people were killed immediately and many more suffered burns in the blast at the pipeline which carries fuel from the Gulf coast to Tula, just north of Mexico City.

Hidalgo state police said the leak was first reported about 5pm local time. "There was a report that residents were on the scene trying to obtain fuel," according to a police report. Two hours later, the pipeline burst into flames.

Another pipeline burst into flames in the neighbouring state of Queretaro last Friday, also because of an illegal tap. Pemex said the second fire was "in an unpopulated area and there is no risk to human beings".

In December 2010, authorities blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion near the capital which killed 28 people, including 13 children.

That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area 10km wide in San Martin Texmelucan.

The blast will further focus attention on Lopez Obrador's fight against the €3bn a year fuel theft racket.

"I greatly lament the grave situation Tlahuelilpan is suffering because of the explosion of the duct," Lopez Obrador tweeted. He called on all branches of government to assist the victims.

He launched the offensive after taking office on December 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries.

His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. There are not enough trucks, however, and long queues at petrol stations have plagued several states.

But Lopez Obrador faces resistance to his battle against fuel theft. Gangs have been able to win the loyalty of whole neighbourhoods, using free petrol and getting locals to act as lookouts and confront military patrols carrying out raids against the thefts.

It is unclear whether last Friday's tragedy will turn the tide of opinion against the gangs in the impoverished villages that lie above the underground pipelines.

Sunday Independent

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