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Mexico pipeline fire kills at least 21, many while gathering illegally tapped fuel

At least 21 people were killed and 71 others injured Friday when an explosion occurred in Mexico’s central Hidalgo state at a fuel pipeline that had been illegally tapped, authorities said.

The fatal blast came as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has sent thousands of troops and police to guard pipelines as part of a major effort to eliminate rampant fuel theft. The president has also accused fuel thieves — known here as huachicoleros — of sabotaging fuel lines in a bid to thwart the government crackdown.

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Lopez Obrador rushed to the scene in the early morning hours and said the tragedy would not alter his crackdown on fuel theft.

Images circulating on social media and on television showed horrific scenes of what appeared to be calcified bodies and badly burned victims whose clothes had been seared off at the site of the explosion — a rural zone in the town of Tlahuelilpan, 75 miles north of Mexico City.

Some victims had burns over 40% to 90% of their bodies, officials reported.

Residents had descended on the rural site about 5 p.m. with containers to collect gasoline gushing from the perforated pipeline, according to cellphone images circulating on Mexican media. The ruptured line burst into flame about 7 p.m., authorities said, as many people were still at the site seeking to collect free fuel.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the explosion. Footage aired on Mexican TV showed people running and screaming for help as flames shot from the ruptured pipeline. Firefighters were still trying to douse the remnants of the fire some five hours later.

In the evening, distraught residents were making the rounds of hospitals, seeking relatives who had been whisked away in ambulances and helicopters.

Fuel theft has been a problem in Mexico for decades but has increased in recent years, authorities say, as drug cartels have moved into the lucrative business. The thieves tap into pipelines, siphon off the fuel and sell it on the black market. The huachicoleros have an extensive network of trucks and storage facilities, a broad distribution system and knowledge of how to tap into high-pressure pipelines. The black-market gasoline is often sold openly on streets and along roadsides.

Aiding the fuel thieves, authorities here say, are corrupt police, local politicians and representatives and contractors of Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the national energy company. Fuel theft cost Pemex some $3 billion last year, Lopez Obrador said.

In recent weeks, the president has deployed about 10,000 troops and federal police to guard hundreds of miles of vulnerable fuel pipelines, many in remote areas. The government has periodically shut down much of the pipeline system as part of its anti-theft operation, leading to major shortages of gasoline at the pump.

“I greatly lament the grave situation that Tlahuelilpan is suffering,” Lopez Obrador said Friday in a Twitter message.

The president called the problem a “scourge” and vowed to eliminate it. Last year, Pemex detected more than 12,000 illegal perforations of pipelines, authorities said.

The black-market tapping of fuel from pipelines provides a living for many rural communities, where residents have resisted enforcement efforts. Fuel thieves occasionally engage in shootouts with police and military units.

Friday’s explosion is not the first such tragedy in Mexico. In 2010, 29 people in the state of Puebla were killed at an explosion at a pipeline that had also been illegally tapped.

McDonnell is a Times staff writer and Sanchez a special correspondent in The Times’ Mexico City bureau. Special Correspondent Liliana Nieto del Rio in Mexico City also contributed.

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