Tlahuelilpan, Mexico—A massive fire broke out at an illegal pipeline tap in central Mexico on Friday, killing at least 21 people and injuring 71 more, just as the government wages a major crack-down on fuel theft.
Scores of locals with jerry cans and buckets had been collecting gasoline that was gushing from a leaking pipeline when an explosion occurred, according to witnesses.
Video taken in the aftermath showed desperate people fleeing the scene, screaming for help, as the enormous fire lit up the night sky in Tlahuelilpan, in Hidalgo state, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of Mexico City.
“I went just to see what was happening, and then the explosion happened. I rushed to help people,” said Fernando Garcia, 47. “I had to claw through pieces of people who had already been burned to bits,” he told AFP.
The tragedy comes as the federal government is waging a highly publicized war on fuel theft, a problem that cost Mexico an estimated $3 billion in 2017.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador traveled to the scene in the early hours of Saturday.
“I am deeply saddened by the suffering in Tlahuelilpan caused by the explosion of a pipeline,” the leftist leader earlier wrote on Twitter.
“I call on the whole government to assist people there.”
Federal and state firefighters and ambulances run by state oil company Pemex rushed to help victims with burns and take the wounded to hospitals.
The flood of patients overflowed local clinics and hospitals, said AFP correspondents at the scene.
Security Minister Alfonso said around midnight that the fire had been brought under control.
Pemex said it was also responding to another fire at a botched pipeline tap in the central state of Queretaro, though in that case there were no victims.
Mexico is regularly rocked by deadly explosions at illegal pipeline taps, a dangerous but lucrative business whose players include powerful drug cartels and corrupt Pemex insiders.
The tragedy comes as anti-corruption crusader Lopez Obrador presses implementation of a controversial fuel theft prevention plan.
The government has shut off key pipelines until they can be fully secured and deployed the army to guard Pemex production facilities.
But the strategy to fight the problem led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including Mexico City, forcing people to queue for hours -- sometimes days -- to fill up their vehicles.
The president, who took office on December 1, has vowed to keep up the fight and asked Mexicans to be patient.
At the scene, some locals blamed the shortages for the tragedy.
“A lot of people arrived with their jerry cans, because of the gasoline shortages we’ve had,” said Martin Trejo, 55, who was desperately searching for his son, one of those who had gone to collect the leaking fuel.
Under Lopez Obrador’s crackdown, authorities have opened 1,700 individual investigations for fuel theft and related money laundering.
Tanker trucks are being used to deliver fuel, but experts say there are not nearly enough of them.
Mexico City residents faced the second week of fuel shortages this week, though lines at service stations were shorter than the previous week.
Mexican bank Citibanamex estimated Wednesday that the shortages would cost Latin America’s second-largest economy around $2 billion, “if conditions return to normal in the coming days.”
The roots of the fuel theft problem run deep in Mexico, where the practice -- known locally as “huachicoleo,” or moonshining -- is big business for some communities.
Lopez Obrador so far retains broad support: 89 percent of Mexicans back his crackdown, and his approval rating has even ticked up slightly, to 76 percent, according to a poll published Monday by newspaper El Financiero.