LA PRECIOSITA, Mexico — When an explosion at a punctured oil pipeline killed nearly 100 people in Mexico last week, it revealed the full extent of a crisis that has long been ignored — fuel theft is now out of control.
Video of the hours prior to the blast reveal a free-for-all as locals raced up to the site of an illegal tap on the pipeline to fill bottles and drums with free gasoline. Soldiers stood idly by as the crowds swelled to as many as 800, in Tlahuelilpan, central Mexico. The army’s reluctance to intervene was in part explained by the threat posed by the gangs responsible for so much of Mexico’s fuel theft — just days before a group of soldiers was taken hostage by residents of a nearby town.
The leak soon became a geyser, drenching people who stood near it, before it exploded that night, swallowing everything in its path, and killing at least 96 people.
There’s a hidden danger bubbling under Mexico’s surface, with members of local cartels and gangs targeting the country’s vast network of pipelines — last year, they made more than 12,000 illegal taps, siphoning around 56,000 barrels of fuel a day. The government mostly turned a blind eye as the social and security crisis brought on by the crime intensified, and money poured into the coffers of cartels and gangs.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office last month, has promised to end fuel theft. But it’s an almost impossible challenge, partly because illegal drilling — which includes crude, diesel, and gas — is so easy. The 10,560-mile-long network of pipelines that crisscross Mexico is mostly just a few feet below the surface, allowing people to puncture the pipes and then tap them with a valve.
López Obrador’s crackdown on huachicoleo, as fuel theft is known, has led to long lines at the pumps and a fuel shortage crisis over the past few weeks — and was the backdrop for Friday’s deadly explosion.
Besides the billions of dollars it costs the government in lost revenue and the growing death toll, fuel theft has created another crisis: an environmental disaster that has left an oily layer across swathes of Mexico, threatening the viability of its crops and the health of thousands of people.
“There is no illegal tap that does not result in a spill,” said José Víctor Tamariz Flores, coordinator of the agricultural studies program at the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla — the best hope is that the people responsible know what they’re doing, and only cause a small spill.
Mexico is the world’s 11th biggest oil producer, but the industry is in crisis, with output falling in recent years, while illegal tapping has increased.
Organized crime spiraled under the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who tasked the army with going after drug kingpins, leaving them with few resources to tackle fuel theft. Between 2012 and 2017, illegal taps increased by 528%, according to a 2018 study from a Puebla-based Citizens’ Observatory. Last year, the state-run oil company, Pemex, reported 12,581 illegal taps, up from 10,363 in 2017.
López Obrador announced his offensive against fuel theft just days after his swearing-in in December. He temporarily shut down several of the nation’s main pipelines, resorting to a limited network of tanker trucks to transport fuel to gas stations, and deployed more than 5,000 soldiers and marines to patrol the pipelines. The head of the country’s financial intelligence unit, Santiago Nieto, said he was looking into at least 8,482 individuals with possible connections to fuel theft.
López Obrador was adamant that his administration would tackle the growing crisis when he spoke at a press conference after the explosion in Tlahuelilpan. “Even in the most painful and difficult circumstances, we will not give in,” he said, flanked by his health minister and the top prosecutor. “If we don’t move forward, our children and grandchildren will blame us.”
The government has done little to analyze the environmental mess left behind by fuel theft. There are now more than 4,500 contaminated sites across Mexico, but Pemex, which is responsible for running the network of pipelines, stopped cleaning up those sites in May 2016, telling the Supreme Court that it was not responsible for contamination by third parties.
The court agreed, but concluded that Pemex must “immediately carry out the necessary measures to contain [the spilled substances] in order to safeguard the safety or health of local residents.” Pemex did not respond to a list of questions from BuzzFeed News.
Meanwhile, farmers continue to suffer. In Palmar de Bravo, a tiny speck of a town in Puebla, the state where the most illegal taps were discovered last year, farmers often can’t water their crops near the pipelines, and some say their vegetables are contaminated.
The trouble for L. — a farmer with nearly 20 hectares of land where he grows tomatoes and broccoli — began several years ago when he found a roadblock near one of his plots of land. Right away, he knew who was behind it: He had recently been running into groups of armed men who kept telling him that he “worked for” them. He knew he risked being killed if he tried to get through the roadblock.
“The way they look at you, the way they talk to you, you get goosebumps,” said L., who requested that his name be withheld for fear of retaliation from cartels and local armed gangs. Many of these gangs sell their stolen product in markets off the side of highways, and even on Facebook, for a third of the price it is sold at gas stations.
Nearly half of L.’s crops are affected, he said. It’s not only that he can’t water them: The soil all around has been damaged by the illegal tapping. To make matters worse, trucks ferrying stolen fuel often flee the pipelines at high speed, and it is not unusual for them to overturn and cause even more damage.
L. cannot afford to clean up his land. To do so he would have to spend money he doesn’t have on a process called bioremediation, which involves adding specific types and amounts of bacteria to the damaged soil in order to make it fertile again. Tamariz said it costs nearly $3,700 to treat just one acre of land.
Meanwhile, crops across the country continue to suffer the effects, putting local populations at risk. In Tlahuelilpan, where Friday’s explosion took place, farmers worried about the water they are forced to use on their land.
“It’s filled with fuel. That affects all vegetable consumers,” said Nicolas Corona, whose neighbor died in the blast. “People will be poisoned.”
Farmers are also worried about the effect on exports, a good part of which goes north to the US. In 2016, 54% of agricultural imports in the US came from Mexico, according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture.
Residents of Palmar de Bravo also have serious concerns about the impact on their health. They complain of an increase in respiratory conditions and miscarriages, although there are no recent studies.
“There is a risk for adverse effects to human health, flora, fauna, and the environment,” a 2018 report from Mexico’s Federal Audit Office concluded.
On a cool morning in early January, a group of soldiers formed a protective barrier around Armando Tapia as he dug into the earth in a cornfield.
Just a few weeks earlier, thieves had illegally drilled into a pipeline in the fields just outside the town of La Preciosita, causing a spill. The army cordon around Tapia — a scientist who studies how to make contaminated soil fertile again after a spill — was necessary because local gangs had been stalking and attacking anyone who came near the pipelines.
Tapia is one of only a handful of scientists trying to clean up the mess left behind, and it’s becoming increasingly dangerous for him to carry out his studies. Tapia has been told by Pemex not to go out into the field alone, and that he should partner up with their oil workers. They, in turn, must be accompanied by the army when they go out to fix illegal pipeline taps.
Despite Pemex’s refusal to clean up spill sites, Tapia and his wife, Teresita Jiménez, a fellow scientist, continue to carry out their research. Together, they test different kinds and amounts of bacteria on contaminated soil samples to determine the right formula to fix the damage.
After exploring a row of dried-up maize, Jiménez walked over to the oily spill and planted her feet firmly into the perimeter of the growing hole. She shook her head.
“The next task for the government is to clean up the ground,” said Jiménez. “If it doesn’t, Mexico will die of hunger.”
Speaking out about fuel theft is risky. Hilario Cruz, the founder of a local radio station in Palmar de Bravo, Radio Xalli, knows this better than most. Back in 2015, when illegal oil drilling first began to attract headlines, several guests on a talk show named people they said were behind it.
It didn’t take long for the warnings to start. Within minutes, a man had driven up to the station on a motorcycle, and called out, “You will shut your mouths.”
Located in the so-called Red Triangle, a crime-ridden area where a lot of the huachicoleo takes place, Palmar de Bravo sits on one of Mexico’s main pipelines. “We are deeply submerged in hell here,” said Cruz. Nowhere are the economic, social, and political implications of the problem as evident as they are in Cruz’s hometown.
The rise in crime associated with huachicoleo has forced people indoors at night and caused families to flee. One farmer, Cruz said, was given a few hours to leave their ranch after being told it would be used to store stolen fuel.
Panic spread through town, and with it depression and stress. The problem was everywhere. “We woke up smelling like gasoline, our hair sticky,” said Cruz. “You’d eat a lettuce and you’d eat gasoline. You’d eat broccoli and you’d eat gasoline,” he added.
“The problem is still there. Our ground is polluted.”
Aranzazú Ayala Martínez is a Mexican journalist born in Puebla, with a major in literature. She works currently with independent local outlet Lado B and has collaborated in several national projects focusing on clandestine graves and mass disappearances.