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Theft From Fuel Pipelines Is A Rampant, Deadly Problem In Mexico


In the Mexican state of Hidalgo last night, a ruptured gasoline pipeline exploded in a massive fireball. At least 66 people were killed. There are dozens of burn victims, many being sent to hospitals in Mexico City, which is about 80 miles away. The explosion occurred at one of the many points where people have tapped into the pipeline to siphon off fuel. The country is in the middle of a gas shortage that's now into its third week, and the shortage was caused in part by the government's attempt to stop the siphoning by shutting down the pipeline.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has been covering this story. Carrie, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What do we know about last night's explosion?

KAHN: Oh, Scott, it's just - it's horrific. There were so many people around that - the part where the pipeline had been tapped into. Just - there were whole families and children. And so we've seen all these videos have been circulating. I think that's why there are so many videos. And you see this sort of happy atmosphere, the beginning because it was light. It was about 5 o'clock at light - yesterday afternoon when the pipeline was ruptured. And you see this geyser of gas coming out of the pipeline and people all around carrying these huge jugs and buckets just filling up from there. And then later, you see these videos of when it exploded and it's just a hurl of this fiery ball. It's just incredible what we've seen. And the bodies - the burned bodies, shoes, everything - all those huge gas containers. It's just a horrific sight.

SIMON: And I gather there have been tragedies like this occurring before.

KAHN: Yes, this is a terrible problem that the country is facing - this gas theft and tapping into the pipelines. There have been - I think in 2010, a couple dozen people were killed at a big explosion. It's such a danger. Can you imagine - these are huge pipelines that are bringing gas at high pressure - hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico transversing the country and people are tapping into it. It's just a very volatile situation. And there have been accidents, but this one is particularly bad.

SIMON: What's the siphoning about, Carrie?

KAHN: Well, this is what's been going on. Theft from the oil companies - state-run oil company, Pemex, has been going on for a long time. But in recent years, it's just become so blatant and has just - I hate to use the word but exploded in recent years to a loss of $3 billion a year in gas that's siphoned out of the oil company. So we're not talking about what we've seen last night of, you know, people that - from small towns cutting into it and coming with buckets. This is an organized crime event that is happening throughout Mexico. And so the new president decided he's going to crack down on it.

SIMON: And, I mean, how does he do that? How does he, forgive me, build a wall around pipelines? I mean, how do you do that?

KAHN: Well, it's crazy because what we've been experiencing has been a very difficult time for a lot of people in a lot of states in Mexico. What he did was he cut off the gas to six major pipelines throughout the country and began trucking the gas in a fleet of trucks around the country. But there's no way there were enough trucks. It was a very inefficient and expensive way to get gas to gas stations. And we've been dealing with a gas shortage I haven't seen since the '70s in the United States with lines hours long. And so what we saw I think yesterday was the frustration of people who still can't get gas and are still tapping into the pipelines. And it's a very big problem that - it's going to be difficult for him to combat.

SIMON: We've got a few more seconds. So are people tapping in there because they can't afford to pay for gas?

KAHN: No, it's a criminal organization. Yeah, they get gas at half the price on the black market, but it is a criminal organization. People are making billions of dollars from stealing this gas. And it's been so bold that even the security head of the Pemex, the oil company, is under investigation for collaborating collusion. Local...

SIMON: Carrie Kahn, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.