The explosion of a gas pipeline in Central Mexico on Friday has resulted in the deaths of at least 89 people. The incident, which occurred in the village of Tlahuelilpan, began when a pipeline ruptured, spewing gasoline through a hole punched by fuel thieves. The allure of free gasoline, currently at a premium in many parts of Mexico, drew hundreds looking to fill whatever containers were readily available. Gasoline shortages have been common for many Mexicans, as new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has cracked down significantly on fuel thievery. Supply to commonly targeted pipelines has been cut off, as a more inefficient system of trucks and train cars, often accompanied by police escorts, have instead transported fuel.
Despite this crackdown, Lopez Obrador has been steadfast in his refusal to criticize the victims of the explosion, who were indeed stealing fuel. As he stated at a news conference over the weekend, “we have the conviction that the people are good, that they are honest, that if they arrived at these extremes, these practices, it’s because they were completely abandoned by the state.” Obrador’s comment is indicative of his longstanding campaign vows to clamp down on crime and corruption, while also lifting up the poor and marginalized. However, Friday’s incident reveals a sort of tension in Obrador’s policy. As Jaime Lopez Aranda, a security analyst out of Mexico City, commented, “the poor come first, they are good. But they were basically stealing.” Despite this tension in policy, Obrador has largely avoided criticism for the disaster, and has in fact been praised for his response. As The New York Times reported, he was on scene within hours of the accident, and has held twice daily press conferences regarding the situation with cabinet members and other key officials. “Mexico is hungry for accountability and he’s providing it,” said Viridiana Rios, a visiting professor of government at Harvard University and columnist for the Mexican Daily Excelsior.
Accountability is a fundamental aspect of any government that hopes to provide stable and peaceable leadership. It is therefore encouraging to see the openness with which the Obrador administration is conducting its emergency response. In particular, press conferences providing frequent updates on the situation are a sign that the Mexican government may enter a new phase of clarity. Still, Obrador must try to wage his war against crime, specifically fuel pilfering, without depriving many of access to gasoline. Doing so will only add a further burden to those struggling enough to flock to a burgeoning gas pipe.
Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state oil company, stated after the incident that the pipeline, a major artery for much of central Mexico, had just reopened after being shut since 23 December. Pemex also reported that over the past three months this pipe has been breached as many as 10 times. This represents a major trend in Mexico as, according to President Obrador, fuel theft gangs tapped into pipelines 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, or around 42 times per day. This level of theft results in an approximately $3 billion annual loss for the Mexican government.
Friday’s accident was unquestionably a great tragedy; yet, the response of President Obrador has proven his administration’s commitment to transparency. Still, the wave of fuel thievery will likely continue as his war to end this crime has cut off the supply of many Mexicans. It is certainly true that criminals exploiting the fuel lines should be stopped, but the cost this incurs upon the Mexican people must also be considered if future incidents are to be avoided entirely.
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