TLAHUELILPAN – An explosion and fire in central Mexico killed at least 73 people after hundreds swarmed to the site of an illegal fuel-line tap to gather gasoline amid a government crackdown on fuel theft, officials said.
Hidalgo state governor Omar Fayad announced that the toll had increased to 73 after the discovery of five additional bodies.
The blast – which Fayad said injured 74 people – occurred near Tlahuelilpan, a town of 20,000 people about an hour’s drive north of Mexico City.
On Friday, when authorities heard that fuel traffickers had punctured the pipeline, an army unit of about 25 soldiers arrived and attempted to block off the area, Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval told reporters.
But the soldiers were unable to contain the estimated 700 civilians – including entire families – who swarmed in to collect the spilled gasoline in jerrycans and buckets, witnesses said.
The armed soldiers had been moved away from the pipeline to avoid any risk of confrontation with the crowd when the blast occurred, some two hours after the pipeline was first breached, Sandoval said.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who took office only weeks ago, traveled to the scene early Saturday. He did not fault the soldiers, saying, “The attitude of the army was correct. It is not easy to impose order on a crowd.” He vowed to continue fighting the growing problem of fuel theft.
Lamento mucho la grave situación que se padece en Tlahuelilpan por la explosión de un ducto. Estoy en Aguascalientes y, desde que el director de Pemex y el secretario de Defensa me informaron, di instrucciones para que se controle el fuego y se atienda a las víctimas.
— Andrés Manuel (@lopezobrador_) January 19, 2019
“I am deeply saddened by the suffering in Tlahuelilpan,” Lopez Obrador wrote on Twitter. He called on his “whole government” to extend assistance.
The tragedy comes during a highly publicized federal government war on fuel theft, a problem that cost Mexico an estimated $3 billion in 2017.
Mexico is regularly rocked by deadly explosions at illegal pipeline taps, a dangerous but lucrative business whose players include powerful drug cartels and corrupt Pemex insiders.
About 15 oil pipeline explosions and fires causing more than 50 fatalities each have occurred around the world since 1993. Most were in Nigeria, where in 1998 more than 1,000 people died in such a blast. A fire after a pipeline rupture in Brazil killed more than 500 people in 1984.