MEXICO CITY – Rebellious crowds of townspeople in a rural area in central Mexico are defying police and soldiers to steal diesel from illegally tapped pipelines, creating what officials call an imminent threat of tragedies like fires that have burned dozens of people at other sites in Mexico.
The sight of a crowd of men, women and youths gathered around a huge pool of diesel with buckets in the central state of Tlaxcala exemplifies the trend in pipeline thefts, which rose 52 percent in 2015 to reach a rate of nearly 15 illegal taps per day across the country.
Alejandro Espejel, the spokesman for the city of Calpulalpan, said people in several villages have made a habit of either perforating pipelines or taking advantage of taps created by professional fuel thieves.
They have broken through security perimeters on almost two dozen occasions in the last year, built dams to create diesel containment ponds and hauled up fuel by the bucketful to sell. Espejel said the villagers have defied orders by police and security authorities to stop the practice.
"The people swear at the state police, the federal police and even the soldiers. They get in any way they can" to cordoned off areas where fuel spills occur.
In a video of one mass fuel theft posted by the newspaper Sol de Tlaxcala this week, dozens of people can be seen in a festive atmosphere gathered around the banks of a narrow gully, tossing buckets down into a swimming-pool sized pond of diesel, and pulling the full buckets back up with a rope. The villagers can then be seen carrying the buckets up a muddy slope on their shoulders, to fill a larger container.
While the video had no date, Espejel confirmed the incident happened in December at a spot where a 12-inch pipeline operated by the state-owned oil company, Pemex, crosses a gully or narrow stream bed.
Espejel said residents had apparently drilled into the pipeline, dammed up the stream bed, and created a pond full of fuel.
A Pemex official who was not authorized to be quoted by name confirmed that the incident had occurred, and said the danger was enormous, for what are likely to be tiny profits.
"They have to store it, and let it settle, because the diesel has grass, and dirt, and even water in it," said the official. "They can't sell it for anywhere near the official price (about 80 cents per liter, or $3.10 per gallon), so they maybe sell it for half that."
"It is usually people from rural hamlets who live near the pipeline," said the official. Some villagers allegedly milked pipelines by inserting wooden stoppers into illegal tap holes, and opening them when they wanted to get fuel.
In March 2015, villagers in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco state broke through a police perimeter and then chased off firefighters so they could steal gasoline from a crashed tanker truck. The spilled fuel ignited, burning 21 people so severely they later died.
And in December, five people in Tabasco died from a fire that broke out near where people were using an illegal tap to gather fuel on Dec. 22.
The Pemex official said something as simple as a motorcycle engine could ignite spilled fuel.
While such community fuel thefts might once have been for the villagers' own use, there is mounting evidence the fuel — especially diesel — is being re-sold.
"These people are now very organized. They have pickup trucks with fuel containers waiting on the road outside," Espejel said. "They are 1,000-liter (265-gallon) containers."
Fuel thefts from state-run pipelines jumped from 3,674 in 2014 to 5,574 in 2015, according to Pemex.