By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times
MEXICO CITY — The death toll from a pipeline fire in central Mexico rose to 66 early Saturday, with 76 others injured.
The pipeline exploded Friday as it was being illegally tapped by fuel thieves near the town of Tlahuelilpan, 75 miles north of Mexico City.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was on the scene early Saturday as the incident took on the character of a national tragedy.
The explosion came during an operation in which Lopez Obrador sent thousands of troops and police to guard pipelines to eliminate rampant fuel theft. The president has also accused fuel thieves — known as huachicoleros — of sabotaging fuel lines to thwart the government crackdown.
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.
Before the explosion, as many as 800 people converged on the site — many carrying buckets, pails and other receptacles — to gather gasoline, which was gushing from the ruptured pipeline more than 20 feet into the air, said Luis Cresencio Sandoval, Mexico’s defense secretary. Scenes of the crowd also circulated on social media and on Mexican television, showing some gatherers saturated with the flowing fuel.
Soldiers who arrived on the scene before the explosion were unable to deter a sometimes “aggressive” crowd, said the defense secretary. On previous occasions, Cresencio said, people collecting gasoline from ruptured fuel lines have attacked soldiers and police.
In a news conference Saturday, Lopez Obrador renewed his promise to “eradicate” the gangs of fuel thieves that operate in regions of Mexico where pipelines carry gasoline and diesel from refineries and depots to Mexico City and other major population centers.
“We have to continue with the plan to end the robbery of fuel,” Lopez Obrador said. “We are not going to stop; we are going to eradicate this.”
But the president — a leftist populist elected last year on an anti-corruption platform and promises to improve the well-being of all Mexicans — also expressed sympathy for people in towns and rural areas that rely on the illegal fuel trade. Many, he said, had “no alternatives” because of the widespread poverty and lack of opportunity in their regions. In coming days, the president said, he would visit the pipeline zones and outline an alternate economic development plan, including low-interest loans, for them.
But, he said, he was refraining from blaming anyone for the tragedy until an investigation was completed and all the evidence is in.
“We are not going to confront fire with fire,” Lopez Obrador said. “We are not going to confront violence with violence.”
(Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau and special correspondent Liliana Nieto del Rio contributed to this report.)
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