By RICARDO CASTILLO
At this point, the question is not so much what, where or how? The question is: Who is the real culprit behind the Jan. 18 gasoline duct explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo?
A review of general opinions across Mexico regarding the blast in the obscure little township just a 100 kilometers north of Mexico City points in every direction as a result of key questions, with no other answer than the staggering number of charred people, over 150 with a still-mounting death count of 90 as of late Monday, Jan. 21, and another 60 victims still hospitalized with severe burns.
Blame for the explosion of a Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) poly-duct, which had been tapped for years by fuel thieves, can be laid practically anywhere. But the fact is that on Friday, Jan. 18, the pipeline breach to steal gasoline burst open, jetting an approximately 75-foot-high geyser into the air. The jet of fuel caught the attention of hundreds of dwellers from the Hidalgo municipalities of Tlahuelilpan and Tlaxcoapan.
One guilty party could be Pemex itself. The Tuxpan-Tula duct runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Tula refinery through numerous Mexican communities. In fact, the track where the duct ran was used by the two abovementioned municipalities (pronounce them if you can, they are ancient Aztec names) to divide one from the other. Also, the owners of the alfalfa fields that grew on both sides of the duct used it as irrigation water. Shouldn’t Pemex have known that the waterway was right over the duct?
Another opinion regarding the tragedy is that the blame lies with the huachicoleros (gasoline pirates) who pierced the tap into the pipe. Eyewitness reports claim that a truck loaded with hay stacks often parked at the site of the explosion to suck gas out of the duct and put it into a giant container hidden by the packs.
Pemex officials have been accused of having covered up the theft for an indefinite amount of years in exchange for a kickback of the profits.
Yet the one thing that never passed through the minds of the physical thieves and their protectors at Pemex was that because the duct had been, tapped so many times, the pipe would eventually break and jet the fuel into the air.
Definitely, the most controversial potential culprits are the victims themselves. Even though it is a rural poor society, the news that “they were giving gasoline away” spread quickly through the what’s app system. The fuel began going up at around at around 1 p.m. Friday. The Mexican Army began guarding the massive spill at 2:30. A report from National Security Secretary Alonso Durazo states that some 25 soldiers arrived immediately on the scene, but by then, around 800 people were collecting the huachicol (stolen fuel). The report says the soldiers were undermanned for a couple of hours, during which time the crowd, with buckets and containers in hand, avidly took advantage of the free fill-up.
The soldiers warned the crowd to stay away from the duct because it was both contaminated and dangerous since it might explode. That warning became a reality at 6:50 p.m. The sound of the blast could be heard from kilometers away and, on Monday, Jan. 21, emergency units were still combing the area, looking for bits and pieces of the victims. finding a finger here, a batch of burnt human hair over there.
A fierce debate is now going on in Mexico as to just how guilty the victims were. President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), in several press conferences over the weekend, clearly stated that they were victims.
AMLO’s harshest critics claim that the huachicoleros were nothing more than gasoline thieve, who did not stop their criminal activity until death put them away. In a grisly image from some videos before the explosion, some of the huachicoleros were seen joyously bathing under a shower of stolen gasoline.
Some defenders of the gasoline thieves have claimed that they were forced into their crime “out of need,” but the residents of the two municipalities are considered to be economically above the poverty line. They did not “need” to steal fuel.
But perhaps AMLO himself is to blame as well. AMLO shut off the ducts precisely to prevent theft and force the thieves into other means of making a living, but the sight of thousands of liters of free gas was too good to resist in the eyes of these mostly farming community dwellers.
Also, over the past month and a half, AMLO had warned that there had been several cases of sabotage along the Tuxpan-Tula duct – guerrilla acts, some claim, while others point to organized crime gangs who had made billions of pesos milking the ducts over the years, wreaking damage on the pipes. In fact, AMLO said during his Monday morning press conference, most of the Pemex ducts were already badly damaged, with literally thousands of tapping breaches.
AMLO is now facing yet another highly volatile political confrontation. Gasoline theft grew exponentially under former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s mandate (from 2012 to 2018), during which time he brought about his controversial Energy Reform. Was stealing gasoline to defraud and eventually bankrupt Pemex part of Peña Nieto’s plan? Even AMLO has said that Peña Nieto could not have been oblivious of the theft. Yet, in his “no vengeance and no investigation of the past administration” policy, AMLO is being criticized by those who claim that Peña Nieto should not be in retirement, but in jail, charged with “huachicol” theft.
The true cause of the Tlahuelilpan explosion are unknown. It could have been anything, from political sabotage to just an accidental spark.
Most likely, the bulk of the aforementioned questions will never be answered. But, on Monday, AMLO pledged that he would continue his war against corruption in Mexico, with huachicol being one of many forms of corruption that need to be eradicated from the bread-earning habits of Mexicans.
Is the nation in shock, as many hypocrites claim? I don’t think so. The Tlahuelilpan explosion was just another event in Mexico’s history that will most likely be overshadowed by something bigger and more deadly in the future. It’s only a matter of time.