Cartels again? Pipeline blast in Mexico kills 28 people

By Eric Watkins
During the past year, oil and gas pipelines have often been the target of terrorists and thieves in Mexico – often with ill effects for people and property around them.

That certainly was the case in Mexico over the weekend when thieves tampering with an oil pipeline may have sparked a deadly explosion that turned streets of a Mexican town into an inferno that killed 28 people.

"Several streets were flooded with fuel,” said Valentin Meneses, interior minister of the state of Puebla. “With a spark, there was a river of fire," Menses added.

Among the dead there were 13 children, while 52 people were injured, officials said, adding that the explosion destroyed 32 houses and damaged more than 80 more.

Officials at Petróleos Mexicanos acknowledged that it may bear responsibility for the blast, citing mechanical problems. But the state-owned firm felt that oil thieves were the more likely cause of the incident.

"We are not discounting mechanical problems but, on the other hand, we have had problems with illegal taps this year including along that stretch" of pipe, said Pemex chief Juan Jose Suarez.

That view was supported by Laura Gurza, chief of the federal Civil Protection emergency response agency, who said that investigators found a hole in the pipeline and equipment for extracting crude.

According to Meneses, the thieves lost control “because of the high pressure with which the fuel exits the pipeline.”

This is the latest incident in a year when Pemex has struggled with chronic theft, losing as much as 10% of of its product due to criminals who tap remote pipelines.

According to Pemex, there have been 100 such illegal taps this year all along the disrupted pipeline which the state firm has now closed pending further investigations as ordered by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon.

In 2009, the US Department of Justice said US refineries bought millions of dollars' worth of oil stolen from Pemex pipelines and smuggled across the border in illegal operations led by Mexico’s drug cartels.

Earlier this year, Mexico's oil and gas industry, as if it did not already have enough problems, was also reported to be suffering from worries about abductions of workers carried out by members of the country's drug cartels (OGJ, June 21, 2010).
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