Soldiers survey the scene of a massive gas explosion in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state, Mexico, on Jan. 18, 2019.
Photo: Secretary of National Defense (AP)

At least 66 people are dead and over 70 more are injured following a massive gasoline pipeline explosion Friday night in the town of Tlahuelilpan, north of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo, with authorities putting the blame on fuel thieves.

According to the New York Times, “hundreds of residents” were drawn to the pipeline after hearing that it was spewing gasoline, with authorities saying that military personnel who arrived at the scene were insufficient in number to keep the crowd away:

Videos taken before the blast showed a raucous atmosphere, with villagers from the rural municipality of Tlahuelilpan, including families, whooping and laughing as they filled plastic jugs, pails and canisters with the gasoline, which gushed from the break like a geyser.

In the footage, military personnel who had rushed to the scene can be seen standing by and observing the throng that had converged on the pipeline, which connects to the nearby Tula refinery operated by the government-run oil firm Petróleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex.

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Mexican Director for National Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval told reporters that 25 soldiers faced between 600 and 800 people at the site, the Times wrote. Public Security Minister Alfonso Durazo told Televisa that “At some point there were too many people there and the army and military personnel withdrew to avoid problems,” according to the BBC.

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The pipeline ignited two hours after authorities learned of it, the Times wrote, creating a giant blast. Nightmarish videos uploaded to social media sites showed scores of people running from the scene, some covered in burning gasoline, while others lay injured on the ground. (Warning: The below video contains graphic imagery.)

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Photos from the scene showed forensic investigators sorting through piles of corpses, in some cases burned down to the bone.

Forensic examiners removing bodies after a gas explosion in Hidalgo state, Mexico, on Jan. 19, 2018.
Photo: Claudio Cruz (AP)

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According to the BBC, Mexico’s state-owned Pemex petroleum company said that the cause of the original leak was illegal tapping, though CNN wrote Pemex is still investigating the incident.

Hidalgo state governor Omar Fayad posted to Twitter urging locals “not to be complicit in fuel theft,” saying that it is a crime and that “What happened today in Tlahuelilpan should not be repeated.”

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An ongoing gas shortage in several states—caused in part by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s closure of several key pipelines to fight fuel theft—has lasted for two weeks, CNN added. Authorities claim the fuel theft problem cost the country $3 billion last year, with the Washington Post writing that thousands of pipelines were breached in 2018 in a trade “increasingly controlled by organized crime”:

In 2018, there were more than 13,000 illegal pipeline taps in Mexico, many of them apparently much like the intrusion that led to Friday’s explosion: men with tools and blunt instruments hacking into the country’s vast fuel network, followed by residents who arrive to collect the gasoline in buckets. Much of the stolen fuel is eventually sold on the black market.

The scale of the thefts has been huge. Last year, Mexico lost an average of 60,000 barrels of fuel to theft per day, according to Etellekt, a risk consulting firm that studies the thefts.

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Ruben Salazar, the director of Etellekt, told the Post that the incident “shows the total inability of our security forces to prevent this kind of tragedy and the inability of the government to apply the law.”

The tragedy on Friday evening will not sway authorities from the crackdown, the government said this weekend.

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“This unfortunately demonstrates that we must end this practice that led to the tragedy,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said, per the Post. Obrador added that some of the victims “people without alternatives who were pushed to carry out these activities with all the risks involved.”

[New York Times/Washington Post]

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