RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to shift gears now and focus in on Mexico. Authorities there say more than 80 people have died in a gasoline pipeline explosion. At least 80 additional people are injured, and dozens more are still missing. The pipeline exploded after it was illegally tapped by residents of a rural town about two hours outside Mexico City, sending fuel gushing into the air. Fuel theft is big business in Mexico, and the president there has vowed to crack down on the practice. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, that's a tough fight because small, rural towns all along the pipeline's route have actually grown dependent and complicit in the illegal fuel market.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: One of Mexico's key pipelines runs from the Gulf of Mexico west, all the way to Mexico City. It's the most efficient way to get gasoline to the capital, but it's also a vulnerable transport method. Much of its 186 miles runs through rural, sparsely populated towns with few police around. Check out Tlanalapa, in the state of Hidalgo, population 10,000.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: An ice cream vendor rings the bell on his small cart outside the town's elementary school as kids scurry out the main gate. Else Campos (ph) is picking up her daughter.
ELSE CAMPOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I live on the road right out of town, the one that takes you straight to the pipeline," says Campos. "Everyone in town knows where it is," she says.
MARIA CRISTINA GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "And everyone here knows that's where the thieves, known locally as huachicoleros, tap into it," chimes Maria Cristina Gutierrez (ph), another local mom. These days, that road is filled with military trucks and armed guards working for Pemex, the national oil company. They're part of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's crackdown on gas thieves. He's sent thousands of troops all over the country to protect the pipelines. Fernando Juarez Castillo, who owns the corner liquor store in Tlanalapa, is rooting for the president. Sitting in his small store, he shelves fava beans while waiting for customers.
FERNANDO JUAREZ CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I'm against them, these thieves. They're stealing my money," says Juarez, referring to the losses suffered by Pemex. Oil revenues, while down substantially in recent years, still provide about a fifth of public funding, according to Bloomberg. And while gas theft has been going on for decades, thieves have taken the practice to new heights in recent years, stealing more than $3 billion last year alone. And everyone is in on the theft - many gas station owners, local officials and even Pemex's own workers. They provide the technical know-how.
Mexico City-based energy analyst David Shields says the new president should be commended for sending troops to guard the pipelines.
DAVID SHIELDS: But I think we also need to make sure that people actually get a stiff sentence and go to jail for gasoline theft.
KAHN: He says, long-term, it's a difficult problem to solve. Complicity is widespread. A federal police officer, who asked me not to use his voice or name, out of fear of losing his job, told me local cops are often involved in the racket. He says, five months ago, Tlanalapa's town ambulance was confiscated after caught transporting dozens of plastic containers full of black-market gas.
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KAHN: At a nearby construction site, a worker says buying stolen gas is easy and everyone in town does it. He didn't want to give his name because he buys on the black market. He says thieves don't worry about getting caught, and they've even started making home deliveries.
UNIDENTIFIED CONSTRUCTION WORKER: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Salaries are so low here in Mexico, people do what they have to do to get by," he says. "Black-market fuel is half the price of gas sold in stations. So many people are tired of being poor, they get into the illegal business. It's good, easy money," he says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tlanalapa, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.