A FIREBALL LIT up the night sky on January 18th when a fuel pipeline exploded at Tlahuelilpan in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. People rolled in a field of alfalfa to smother the flames that engulfed them. The accident killed at least 98 people; 48 are in hospital.
Hours earlier someone had pierced the pipe, sending petrol spurting skywards. Rather than keep their distance, residents of Tlahuelilpan ran towards the leak with empty canisters, capturing the fuel as it gushed out or pooled on the ground. They may have paid a fee to whomever breached the pipe. Cheap fuel is hard to resist. It takes a day of minimum-wage toil to earn enough for five litres of petrol, but no time at all to fill a bucket.
This was the 70th case of fuel theft near Tlahuelilpan since 2016, said Octavio Romero, the boss of Pemex, the state-owned oil company that owns the pipeline. The problem is nationwide. Last year fuel theft cost Pemex more than $3bn. That is double the loss in 2016.
The theft is usually more sophisticated than the free-for-all at Tlahuelilpan. Criminals, with help from Pemex workers who are bribed or coerced, attach thick hoses to the pipes, which channel the fuel into trucks, often waiting several kilometres away to receive it. Some 50,000 outlets across Mexico, quadruple the number of legal filling stations, sell the purloined petrol for a third to half the legal price. Roughly a tenth of the petrol sold in Mexico is stolen.
The illicit trade results in more murders than accidental deaths. Thieves, called huachicoleros, fight over access to pipelines with the largest flows and highest pressure. Many are gangsters diversifying from drug-trafficking, their core business. The rise of fuel theft has contributed to the doubling in the number of murders across Mexico since 2015, to a record 33,000 deaths last year. Violence has increased most in states where fuel theft is rampant, such as Puebla and Guanajuato. The number of murders in Hidalgo doubled last year. This year more than twice as much fuel has been stolen in Hidalgo as in any other state.
Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often known simply as AMLO, wants to stamp out the crime. On December 27th he ordered the shutdown of the most vulnerable pipelines and sent the army to guard them. Lorries took over distribution of fuel from the ports, to which most petrol is brought by ship. That caused bottlenecks. Long queues formed at petrol pumps in many states and in Mexico City. AMLO quickly turned most of the pipes back on, promising that the problem of fuel theft would abate, presumably as a result of other government measures. Most Mexicans gave him credit for fighting it. His approval ratings rose. On January 22nd, AMLO vowed to pay for social programmes to wean residents in the most affected municipalities off of fuel theft.
The tragedy at Tlahuelilpan has dented the optimism brought in by AMLO’s presidency. The army was in Tlahuelilpan but prevented neither the breach of the pipeline nor the explosion, perhaps because it feared that a commotion would trigger one. Some energy experts compared AMLO’s crackdown to the deployment of troops to fight drug gangs in 2006 by then-president Felipe Calderón. The army is still battling drug traffickers.
The tragedy at Tlahuelilpan has undermined a central claim that AMLO made during the election campaign. He blamed crime and corruption on a malign elite and promised that his own integrity would encourage virtue, first in the government and then throughout society. “No one is going to steal,” he said of fuel theft during the election campaign. “I will be the example.”
But the videos of Tlahuelilpan’s townsfolk pilfering fuel, which went viral on social media, showed that ordinary people are not listening. The 50,000 outlets for black-market fuel show that its theft is a crime with millions of accomplices. AMLO is learning the limits of leading by example.