In an apparent case of politically motivated sabotage, six explosions blew apart oil and natural gas pipelines operated by Mexico’s Pemex state oil and gas monopoly early Monday in Veracruz and Tlaxcala states, causing fires and forcing the evacuation of 15,000 people from surrounding towns.
The blasts forced Pemex to shut down at least four affected pipelines and prompted federal authorities to close two major roads. No injuries were reported.
Mexico is the world’s sixth-largest oil producer and a major supplier of petroleum to the U.S. The outages drove the price of oil above $78 a barrel in futures trading Monday.
Monday’s attacks occurred two months after a leftist guerrilla group, the Popular Revolutionary Army, known by its Spanish initials EPR, took responsibility for carrying out four similar bomb attacks on Pemex pipelines and a switching station in the central states of Queretaro and Guanajuato.
The 10-year-old group had sworn to continue its bombing campaign until the federal government revealed the location of two EPR activists from Oaxaca state who have been missing since last year. Oaxaca has been the scene of violent protests and government crackdowns over the last year.
Although no group claimed responsibility for Monday’s attacks, political analysts here said they bore the hallmarks of the EPR or a similar group, and probably were intended as a message against President Felipe Calderon and his policies. Calderon, who is traveling in India, was quick to condemn the explosions as being caused by deliberate acts of violence.
“In the democratic Mexico of today there is no place for these criminal acts,” Calderon said in a statement in New Delhi. “Those that attack the security of Mexico under whatever pretext attack against democracy and against Mexico.”
Calderon, who had dispatched soldiers and federal police to increase security along oil pipelines and at other “strategic installations” after the July attacks, vowed to find and prosecute those responsible for the latest incident.
But Monday’s explosions underscored the difficulty of protecting a pipeline system that stretches across multiple states and crosses many remote areas. Pemex is also burdened with aging equipment that is vulnerable to tampering or sabotage, said Erubiel Tirado, a specialist in national security issues.
“This speaks to us of a persistence in the inefficiency of the security policies” of the government, said Tirado, a professor at Iberoamericana University. “It doesn’t require a very sophisticated and well-trained [organizational] infrastructure in order to sabotage a petroleum installation that is already bad.”
The apparent attacks also indicate the continuing domestic unrest facing Calderon, who has sought to depict himself as a law-and-order president by cracking down on narcotics trafficking and other criminal activity.
Calderon’s public approval ratings are high, but so are social tensions in parts of the country. Relative calm has returned to the streets of Oaxaca, but the city continues to simmer with anger left over from last year’s massive teachers strike, which ended when Calderon’s predecessor, President Vicente Fox, sent in federal police to remove barricades and drive protesters out of the city center.
There also is continuing rancor over last year’s presidential election, in which Calderon narrowly defeated former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose supporters claimed widespread voter fraud.
The EPR is one of several guerrilla factions that have emerged since 1994 in the Pacific state of Guerrero. Last November, one EPR faction calling itself the Democratic Revolutionary Tendency of the EPR claimed responsibility for three Mexico City bombings of a bank and offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst, said that the attacks on Pemex reflected the growing “radicalization” of Mexico’s left-wing groups, which believe they have been systematically shut out of political power by the Fox and Calderon administrations.
“This is a direct consequence of what Calderon received as an inheritance of the election, in which he was chosen in a doubtful manner” from his leftist opponents’ perspective, Crespo said.
“The government of Felipe Calderon has not done the necessary thing of sending a message to the left of using the institutional path, that, yes, it can participate in politics, with the possibility of being listened to, but Calderon has sent the opposite message.”
The attacks have hit Pemex, one of Mexico’s largest revenue-generating sources, in a year when the company already is suffering from a drop in exports. Only an estimated decade’s worth of reserves remain at the company’s Cantarell field in the Gulf of Mexico, where production has been declining. The country depends heavily on oil production to help fill the government’s coffers, and further cuts could affect government budgeting and even trigger a deeper financial emergency.
The attacks in July caused hundreds of factories and other businesses in the Queretaro-Guanajuato region to shut down or cut back production because of fuel shortages.
At least one company, Vitro, announced Monday that five of its glass-container production facilities and one of its automotive-glass production facilities “temporarily interrupted operations” as a result of Monday’s attacks because of disruptions in the natural gas supply the firm receives from Pemex.
The attacks helped push oil prices higher in New York futures trading Monday. Oil for October delivery increased 79 cents to $77.49 a barrel, then rose as high as $78.47 a barrel in late electronic trade, near the record $78.77 reached Aug. 1.
Times staff writer Cecilia SÃ¡nchez contributed to this report.