Mexico’s president vowed on Saturday to redouble his fight against an epidemic of fuel theft after thieves punctured a pipeline north of Mexico City, causing an explosion that killed at least 73 people and injured 75 others. The blast underscored the deadly perils of the fuel-theft racket, which has cost the government billions of dollars a year and has been the target of a weeks' long crackdown by the administration of Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The government’s strategy has included diverting fuel from the pipelines most heavily targeted by criminal gangs, and transporting it by truck. But the logistical changes have slowed deliveries across the country, causing shortages and long lines at service stations.
López Obrador, who visited the area early Saturday, insisted that the disaster showed why his strategy was more necessary than ever: Fuel theft not only inflicts financial damage on the nation, but it also exacts a deadly toll.
“We have to continue with the plan to end fuel theft,” Mr. López Obrador said during a news conference later at the presidential palace in Mexico City. “We will not stop. We will eradicate this.”
The fuel theft crisis is an early test of Mr. López Obrador’s efforts to combat the country’s worsening security landscape. He has said he intends to both strengthen the nation’s security apparatus and address underlying social issues, such as inequality and poverty.
Last Wednesday, the lower house of Mexico’s Congress approved the creation of a 60,000-member national guard composed of police officers and military personnel to handle the nation’s public security tasks, including its fight against organized crime. The proposal has been widely criticized by opposition parties and human rights activists who say it represents a further militarization of policing.
Friday's explosion, which occurred in a rural, impoverished part of the state of Hidalgo, was particularly deadly because the breach in the pipeline created by criminals had also lured hundreds of villagers from the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, drawn by the promise of free gasoline.
That section of pipeline had been among the parts of the fuel transportation network that had been temporarily shut as part of the government’s strategy to curb theft. But the flow through the tube resumed on Friday, just hours before thieves punctured it, officials said.
Governor Omar Fayad of Hidalgo told reporters that his state, like others, had suffered fuel shortages as a result of the government’s strategy.
Residents who gathered at the explosion site on Saturday said that while opportunism had prompted some residents to flock to the illegal pipeline tap on Friday, many others were compelled by the shortages created by the government crackdown.
Villagers, they said, were desperate to find gas for their personal use. Videos taken before the blast showed a raucous atmosphere at the site, with villagers from Tlahuelilpan, including families, laughing as they filled plastic jugs, pails and canisters with the gasoline, which gushed from the break like a geyser.
In the footage, military personnel who had rushed to the scene can be seen standing by and observing the throng that had converged on the pipeline, which connects to the nearby Tula refinery operated by the government-run oil firm Pemex.