TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico — Dizzy and nauseous, Adriana Rojas walked away from the geyser of gasoline spewing out of a clandestinely made gash on a pipeline and towering over a crowd of hundreds in central Mexico on Friday afternoon. The plastic jugs she carried in either hand were heavy with fuel.
Hours later, an explosion at the site of the illegal tap lit up the night sky, killing Rojas’s cousin and 88 others (51 remained hospitalized by Monday morning). The blast comes amid a weeks-long government crackdown on fuel theft in parts of Mexico orchestrated by the new administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Illegal pipeline taps have become one of the most lucrative criminal activities in Mexico, costing the country billions of dollars a year while benefiting everyone from the armed gangs who control large sections of the ducts to the residents who purchase stolen fuel for a third of the price at the pumps. But López Obrador’s strategy to combat the problem — temporarily shutting down the main pipeline ducts and ferrying fuel from refineries to gas stations on tanker trucks — has inadvertently created hours-long lines at the pumps across the country over the last two weeks and prompted outrage from Mexican drivers.
Couples and their young children congregated behind police tape Saturday afternoon, awaiting news on their relatives, dozens of whom are still missing. Some accused the army of negligence, pointing to videos shot hours before the blast showing soldiers standing by as people excitedly ran across the alfalfa field toward the geyser.
“If they had done their job, they would have stopped the people from coming in,” said José Luis Hernández, 69, a local resident.
There were about 25 soldiers and between 600 and 800 people at the site before the explosion, according to Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval. He added that an army official attempted to persuade the crowd to turn back but they became “a little aggressive” and the official was forced to step aside “to avoid a confrontation.”
On Sunday, Security Minister Alfonso Durazo revealed that the military detected the leak at 2:30 pm — nearly 4.5 hours before the blast.
When she arrived at the site Friday afternoon, Rojas said that she asked a soldier if she could approach the pipeline to fill her plastic jugs. He gave her permission but suggested that she leave her cellphone behind, Rojas recalled.
A state police commander, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that authorities had been heavily outnumbered by the crowd of people trying to get at the free fuel. Police officers called for backup over the radio, the commander added, but unlike other illegal taps, this one was unusually close to town and the multitude grew too big too fast.
The recent fuel shortages made people even less receptive to orders from police, the commander said. “If there’s another spill, they will gather again. It’s out of necessity.”
Rojas said she was aware of the dangers when she went to fill several containers with fuel on Friday. But her husband, an employee at a car wash, makes minimum wage, and it barely covers the basic cost of living for the family of four, Rojas added. Fuel prices have been steadily rising in Mexico since last year.
Despite the tragic blast and growing death toll, López Obrador promised to intensify the fight during a news conference early Saturday.
“We will not stand by idly,” he said. “This is very painful but also a big lesson so that, together, as we’ve been doing, we put an end to this problem.”
Authorities have discovered 10 illegal taps in Tlahuelilpan, where Friday’s explosion occurred, during the last three months, Octavio Romero, the general director of Pemex, told reporters during a press conference Saturday. One of those exploded, he added, and took firefighters 12 hours to put out the flames.
Last week, dozens of people in the town of Acambay, in the state of Mexico, ripped through a duct and filled buckets and drums with fuel, according to local reports.