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The Fight for Fuel: How a Disastrous Blast Turned Mexico’s Energy Problem into a Crisis

Earlier this month, an attempted fuel theft caused a massive explosion just north of Mexico City, with dozens killed and many more victims injured.

In a statement from Omar Fayad, the governor of Hidalgo, at least 70 people were immediately injured by the blast —and as of last week, the official toll reported by the Mexican Health Minister Jorge Alcocer is 114 dead, with 33 in intensive hospital care, due to either by the blast or by the fires and smoke that spread across Hidalgo in the hours following. To prevent further casualties of the disaster, many local roads were closed and the area evacuated as the government worked to secure the pipeline and stop the blaze.

The explosion was caused by an illegal fuel tap on the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline in Hidalgo on the night of January 18th, according to PEMEX, the Mexican state-owned energy company. PEMEX has faced repeated issues with fuel theft over the past few years as its attempted to expand its above-ground system of pipelines that channel petroleum products between the Gulf, Mexico, and the United States. These new pipelines tend to be relatively insecure while under development, and therefore very vulnerable to theft. They also tend to be built across land in the poorer regions of Mexico.

“We are appalled by these events, by this tragedy, and we want, first of all, to offer our deepest condolences to the families of the victims, to inform the families of the victims that the entire government is with them,” said Mexican President López Obrador according to the Washington Post. While the sentiments do appear genuine, they digress from Obrador’s aggressive rhetoric surrounding incidents of fuel theft over the past year, which were relatively unsympathetic to those who stole fuel, labeling them instead as criminals in need of harsh justice.

The theft, and the hundreds of attempted thefts preceding it, have prompted the Mexican government, under the directive of President Obrador, to take new measures to crack down on crime. However, with the toll that this blast took, and the government’s military response, Mexican citizens and critics of Obrador’s administration are beginning to question the president’s adamance to subdue alleged “lawlessness” amongst the poorer classes in Mexico.

President Obrador, elected just last year, began his administration with promises to target criminal gangs and other forms of lawlessness, issues which are exacerbated by Mexico’s current fuel crisis. For months, shortages of gasoline in and around the capital have caused prices to surge as gasoline’s status rose to become a scarce commodity. Criminal gangs known as huachicoleros have been tapping pipelines to steal and resell gasoline to poorer Mexicans under the high prices. President Obrador says that the market for cheap stolen fuel cost the government some 60 billion pesos, or $3.14 billion last year.

Not only did the blast bring attention to the severity of the fuel crisis, but it also brought Mexico’s worsening security crisis to a national front. The government is finding it difficult to control gang violence through conventional policing, and is reportedly increasing its reliance on the military. The military was deployed to secure the site almost immediately following the blast, ahead of emergency response in the form of fire and medical services provided by the government, according to the New York Times. Since the beginning of Obrador’s term, over 4,000 military troops and police have been reportedly deployed for the purpose of guarding pipelines.

And according to PEMEX, some pipelines are being shut off, others diverted, with gas instead being transported using tanker trucks. While this does reduce the risk of theft, it has significantly slowed the rate at which any available fuel can reach cities, making the fuel crisis even worse. This has angered the Mexican public against both Obrador and PEMEX—in early January, a pipeline that ran fuel into Mexico City from Tuxpan was allegedly sabotaged in retaliation to the government’s failure to resolve the shortages. Instead, as the Mexican public believes, the government unjustly works first to secure the interests of PEMEX and the state fuel industry rather than the people’s safety.

“Pemex appeals to the general public’s support and understanding,” said PEMEX in a statement last updated on January 1st. “These operations will undoubtedly translate into benefits for all Mexicans.”

But has the Mexican public seen any benefits? Fuel prices remain high, lines for fuel are still long, and businesses reliant on fuel have been forced to close, meanwhile the government is increasing security and taking measures to protect fuel which only exacerbates the immediate issues at hand for the Mexican people. A representative from Coparmex, Mexico’s employer’s association, said in a news conference that Mexican businesses have lost an estimated $60 million since the crisis’ onset.

In the midst of this, it isn’t difficult to see how the huachicoleros have been able to make such easy money off this situation by stealing fuel, or how the Mexican people have built up so much resentment towards the government. Siphoning gas may be dangerous, as the blast showed, but the fact that Mexicans are willing to risk their health and lives shows the true desperation of the public, and the extent to which the fuel crisis has affected them.