Mexico’s president is gambling his people’s livelihood in a fight against gas thieves

The site of the oil pipeline explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico.
The site of the oil pipeline explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico.
Image: AP Photo/Claudio Cruz
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The horrific explosion of an illegally-tapped gasoline pipeline in Mexico on Friday (Jan. 18) has killed at least 73 people as of writing (Jan. 20), and shone a new light on Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s war against fuel thieves.

Many gas stations in Mexico are now reportedly being filled by large, heavily-guarded tanker trucks rather than the country’s oil pipelines, after Lopez Obrador closed those lines to reduce theft. Pemex, the Mexican state-run oil company, detected more than 12,500 illegal pipeline taps in 2018 alone, costing an estimated $3 billion in stolen gas.

But filling stations tanker by tanker has led gas-refueling sites to run dry across the country. Mexicans are being forced to either wait in long lines to legally obtain gas for their cars or buy it on the black market.

“Now we are lining up for gasoline, and I hope in the future, we won’t be on line to buy bread, sugar, milk,” Julia Rendon, 41, told the Los Angeles Times while waiting for gas. “This situation is very worrying and I hope we don’t become another Venezuela.” Venezuela’s rich oil reserves have allowed populist strongmen to run the country for decades while ignoring basic principals of economics, resulting in hyperinflation and widespread hunger.

In Mexico, about 800 people were reportedly gathered around a geysering gasoline pipeline in Tlahuelilpan to fill fuel canisters before Friday’s explosion, according to the LA Times. It’s unknown who originally tapped the pipeline or what caused the explosion, which happened around 7pm local time. The BBC reports that local gas stations were empty.

“In these towns, we all have a relative or friend who is dedicated to [stealing gas],” Jesus Cesar Vera Velazquez, a resident of Tlahuelilpan, told the LA Times. “But they do it out of necessity, because of hunger. There’s no work here, and people earn very little farming.” Another resident said that money from illegally collecting gasoline pays off local officials and police, and has become a normalized part of society.

This is the first major test of Lopez Obrador’s three-week-old plan to combat gas thievery. Local media had already criticized the plan as too extreme and potentially dangerous to citizens’ livelihood before the explosion.

“Let’s see who backs down first,” Lopez Obrador said a week before the explosion. “Because we are going to stop them from robbing gasoline.”