Tlahuelilpan, huachicol and injustice.

Mexico is a big producer of oil. For decades its economy was fully relying on it, until the oil glut of 1981. It made the country fall from the 8th largest economy of the world to the 14th in less than a year.

Lesson learned. The nation diversified and explored further options, but also shifted its interest and budget to other areas. The budget for oil infrastructure continuously decreased and never went up again.

Nevertheless, Pemex, the state-owned oil company kept earning millions as the sole operator in the country, thanks to the convenient use of the company as a gigantic laundry machine for the most corrupt officials in the Mexican government. At all levels.

But at the turn of the millenium, Vicente Fox won the elections as president with the right-wing opposition party, PAN, ousting the corrupt PRI, which had been for 70 years Mexico’s ruling party.

New hopes of change arose, but Fox turned out to be a mere populist and a weak leader. He did not attempt to deeply clean the State from the leeches milking it. In fact, new charges of corruption arose even within his own family.

Felipe Calderón, his successor and co-partisan, arrived in 2006 amidst accusations of electoral fraud. He needed the recognition of his authority, not only with the Mexicans, but also with the northern neighbor.

To justify his contested win and make a name for himself, he decided to launch a frontal attack against the drug cartels, starting the ongoing war on drugs.

Today, more than 100 000 violent deaths later (and counting), one can clearly see that his strategy was inhumane and disastrous. It only empowered the drug cartels and expanded their influence.

After that, Mexicans made a desperate decision in 2012 and voted for Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN), to bring back the old PRI, the party that, among its corruption, had a truce with the drug gangs to keep violence out of the streets.

But there wasn’t a truce anymore. Small cartels had emerged, making it difficult for the bigger cartels to keep order within their ranks. The country had become a battlefield for power and dominions.

Non-surprisingly, EPN’s government took it as a last chance to plunder the house. Almost every state Governor of his party was involved in some scandal of corruption and unlawful embellishment.

Even EPN made it to the headlines when it was discovered that his wife received a mansion in a high-class Mexican neighborhood from a contractor that “coincidentally” won a deal to build the first high-speed train line of the country.

Scandal after scandal, EPN ended his term with a mere 12% approval rating. He was eagerly waiting for the moment to finish and go.

In the eyes of the Mexicans, the centrists (lead by PRI) flooded the country with corruption for decades, while the conservatives (lead by PAN) added the violence of the chaotic war on drugs.

A war that also learned the art of diversification. Cartels entered in the fields of sex trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and, basically, all illegal lucrative activities, including “huachicoleo.”

Huachicol

At the beginning of the XX century, some tequila producers diluted their beverages and sell adulterated spirits for a better profit. That activity was known in Mexico as huachicoleo, the swindlers were called huachicoleros, and their product was named huachicol.

After some decades, other delinquents adapted the huachicoleo to alter other substances, like gasoline.

How? The infrastructure of Pemex had being decaying for years, and a lack of maintenance made it too easy for huachicoleros to simply drill a hole on any pipeline running underground.

The pressure of its contents would do the rest: a fountain of endless gasoline, which takes hours to switch off. Enough for huachicoleros to steal insane amounts of it.

Sure, there were occasional explosions caused by inexperienced criminals, killing them in the process. But very few would lament their losing, or even acknowledge it.

The controlled prices of gasoline in the country made it easy for illegal sales to flourish in the towns around oil refineries or close to known pipe taps.

The oil refinery Miguel Hidalgo in Tula has been one of the most milked, mainly due to its geography. The pipelines arrive to the refinery along steep slopes. So, even if the pipelines are closed, the gravity would keep pulling thousands of liters of gasoline. The perfect spot to steal for hours.

The region is known among the journalists as “triángulo huachicolero” (huachicol triangle.) The mainstream media informs of 50 confrontations against huachicoleros since 2012, but the local journalists of Tula knew of at least 70 in 2018 only.

In the beginning, small bands of criminals would attempt to tap them, but the bigger cartels, looking for more ways to increase their wealth, began to take over the illegal operations, using advanced techniques to steal more and faster.

The phenomenon became gargantuan as more and more people engaged in an activity related to it. From children serving as “halcones” (lookouts watching roads to warn about police activities), to the women selling stolen gasoline in their backyards, to the high ranking executives in Pemex tipping the criminals.

It became a plague costing the taxpayers around 3 Billion dollars per year.

The police and the army constantly oversaw the region to prevent it, but the protection of some locals profiting from it would aid the criminals, leading to a massive discovery of 1767 taps around Tula during 2019, and 412 up to mid 2020.

It might seem, in the numbers, that it decreases. However, the criminals are becoming experts using improved techniques, where old pipes are used alike, this time to transport the stolen gasoline underground undetected by the law enforcers.

The tragedy

Tula, in the State of Hidalgo, is a small and very old city, but with a plethora of heavy industry consisting of PEMEX Oil refinery, cement producers, the State-owned CFE’s geothermal plant providing electricity to Mexico City, and several manufacturing plants in the communities around.

Tlahuelilpan is found 15 km North of Tula. It is smaller and has a primarily rural population, where poverty touches more than 50% of them. The main income is agricultural based and services to the industry in the region.

On December 2018, President López Obrador, just days after taking office, launched a program to combat huachicoleo in the country, where the most tapped pipelines would be shut for several days, and the transportation of gasoline would be carried out with tankers trucks, while the Government would begin to crack down the networks of huachicol at all levels.

This caused a huge gasoline shortage throughout the country, pushing many to hoard fuel, and even reselling it. The army was stationed to safeguard the reserves.

On the afternoon of January 18th 2019, an uncontrollable fountain of fuel just out of Tlahuelilpan surprised its population. Huachicoleros tapped the pipeline, stole as much as they could and left the place in a couple of minutes. The tap was left open and its rich content created a river of fuel.

PEMEX shut the pipeline immediately, but the pressure, and gravity, kept pulling its contents for hours. A rumor of free gasoline ran among the vicinity, and some inhabitants rapidly went to the crime scene to get as much free gasoline as they could. Women and children were also among them.

The National Army was immediately deployed to protect both the pipeline and the population from a possible disaster. But the efforts of the mere 25 guardsmen were futile against the hundreds running and joyfully playing in the new creek of gasoline. They could not be contained. The armed forces are even attacked by some people, but the soldiers cannot respond back, it is dangerous, and they have to stand back watching from the distance.

At around 7 pm a spark ignites the fuel and a ball of fire consumes the fountain in a second. The fire extends and runs through anything flammable killing 90 people in an instant. Many others run in flames trying to survive, and the few lucky ones rapidly escape the monstrous fire behind them.

A couple ambulances arrive from Tula minutes after, but they are not enough. The capital city, Pachuca, sends more help, but they get their hands full too. The charring smell of death dominates the hot air, while a burning field of corpses lights the night in Tlahuelilpan.

The army arrives and assists the certified first responders, whilst experts try to quench the inferno among cries, shouts and the desperation of the locals.

The fire is finally put out at 11 pm, and the Mexican President arrives to the scene hours later. He gives a short interview, but there is no concise information, no official numbers, and no responsibility.

More people die on the way to the hospitals, and others will be interned for months. The surviving minors are sent to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston. The following morning, the bodies that were not incinerated are recovered, but most are beyond recognition. Some families simply assume their relatives are dead, because they never came back home.

Sadly, most victims don’t survive. The official toll: 137 dead and 8 injured.

The Aftermath

It is difficult to pin the responsibility on someone. While some blame the President for the shortage, others blame the victims for their greed, and some others put it on the Army, who didn’t push enough.

The biggest responsible is a corrupt network of huachicoleo operating at all levels. This network perpetuates the crime and protects its criminals. This organization is still being investigated, but in a country with a 99% rate of unsolved crimes, this will most probably stay inequitable.

It has been almost two years and the culpable ones of the tap are not found. They even continue operating in the surrounding areas.

After a year, the Goverment simply created a memorial to honor the 137 dead, but no further actions for justice are made. Families are torn apart and remain without answers. As with everything else in Mexico, it will stay so.

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