Oil pipeline leak in rural Mexico kills 85, injures 58

Andrew Gilkey, Diversions Editor

An oil pipeline exploded in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico, killing 85 people and hospitalizing 58 on Jan. 18th.

The explosion was the result of a severed pipeline that locals were harvesting fuel from in reaction to nationwide fuel shortages. The pipeline was only recently back in service after it had been punctured four weeks earlier.

“It was the popular tap,” said Enrique Cerron, 22, who lives near the field. “You could pass by at 11 or 12 in the morning and see people filling up here,” according to The Associated Press.

The fuel leak was minor, allowing a few locals to fill buckets from a small sprout of gasoline. However, as the the fuel continued to seep out of the punctured pipe, more than 600 people arrived, according to The Associated Press.

A regiment of soldiers stood guard outside of the field, warning the people not to approach the pipeline. Most people ignored the soldiers’ instructions, according to The New York Times.

Officials state that the guards were outnumbered and were not ordered to intervene. Soldiers were beaten in a different town last week for preventing people from gathering fuel from another pipeline.

A man used a piece of rebar to increase the size of the puncture. The pipeline spewed gasoline 20 feet into the air according to Irma Velasco, a local woman interviewed by The Associated Press.

Many became ill from the fumes and stumbled around the field as thousands of barrels worth of gasoline shot into the sky.

“They looked like zombies trying to get all that gasoline out,” said Then Cerron, a student in Tlahuelilpan, according to The Associated Press.

Despite warnings of an imminent explosion from nearby soldiers, many people continued to scavenge for fuel. Soon the geyser of gasoline ignited into a column of fire.

The explosion at Tlahuelilpan is a another deadly effect of Mexico’s fuel theft epidemic. Fuel theft gangs illegally tapped pipelines 12,581 times in the first month of 2018.

The pipelines around Tlahuelilpan are just one site among the 42 pipes that are perforated per day on average in Mexico.

Fuel theft cost the state oil company, Pemex, an estimated $3 billion per year, according to The Associated Press. Pemex itself has been plagued by corruption, stifling action against the full theft gangs, The Associated Press explained.

Newly elected president Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed to combat the corruption of state corporations during his campaign. López Obrador coordinated several operations against illegal taps as well, deploying 3,200 marines to the rural areas where fuel theft is most common.

Government operations against illegal taps were the origin of the fuel shortage, the event that caused the explosion at Tlahuelilpan. Many rural residents are recruited by fuel theft gangs and are financially dependent on their activity.

According to data from the state of Hidalgo, where Tlahuelilpan is located, half of the population living around the pipeline lives in moderate poverty, according to The Associated Press.

López Obrador promises financial aid and jobs as an alternative option for people living along the pipeline as well as to tour several towns plagued by fuel theft.

Editor’s Note: Information from The Associated Press and The New York Times was used in this report.