Corruption and local dysfunction that have plagued Mexico for years caused a deadly gasoline explosion on Jan. 18, said the authorities, experts and victims’ families.

The blast and subsequent fire at a perforated gasoline pipeline in the central Mexican town of Tlahuelilpan has so far claimed 95 lives and left at least 40 others with life-threatening burns. The victims were among hundreds that gathered at the scene, regardless of the danger, to fill canisters and buckets from the leaking supply pipeline, which spewed gasoline like a geyser into the air, showering the surrounding alfalfa field. Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex operates a network of supply pipelines, including the stretch that passes through Tlahuelilpan on its way to a nearby refinery.

Most locals, if not all, were aware that the pipeline had been illegally tapped or sabotaged by criminals involved in the fuel theft, but hoped to make or save money amid a shortage that stoked a black market in gasoline. Families gathered, carrying different types of containers, “as if it were a day at the market,” Ivonne Acuna Murillo, a professor of social and political science at Mexico’s Iberoamerican University, told Xinhua. “Criminal activities related to the theft and the sale of fuel have been known about in Mexico for some years,” said Acuna, adding that the pervasive crime became commonplace and a familiar sight. “Constant images” in the media of people collecting fuel in makeshift receptacles “ended up creating the perception among the people that it was an inevitable and everyday occurrence” in which the organized crime, as well as average citizens, take part, she added.

Stealing fuel “became normalized behavior for the residents, who, due to hunger, desperation or sensing an opportunity, went with no moral misgivings, but more importantly no precaution, to steal the fuel that was gushing from the duct,” Acuna said. Commenting on the explosion, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said, “Of course, this tragedy could have been avoided if there were no corruption in Mexico, if there was no fuel theft.” The tragedy occurred amid Lopez Obrador’s newly launched crusade against corruption, which has for years enabled criminals colluding with government employees at Pemex to steal fuel with impunity. The campaign, launched on Dec. 27, has met with resistance, especially since it sparked fuel shortages in central Mexico where the crime is rampant and the distribution system is being revamped.

Some 8,000 federal police officers and soldiers have been stationed at key points along the network in a bid to prevent perforation of pipes. But each day there are reports of new leaks. It’s clear that corruption has undermined the social fabric, said Acuna. In Tlahuelilpan, residents acknowledged that a combination of factors led to such a scale of the tragedy, including poverty and ignorance. “Innocence, need and the shortage drove many because there were women and children,” Norma Serrano, a local resident, told Xinhua. One of her brothers is still on the list of missing persons and another suffered injuries. Maria Isabel Garcia, a local vendor, has two nieces who were injured in the fire. “They were passing by and saw the chance to get some fuel and it seemed easy to get,” said Garcia.

Many were driven to risk their lives to earn a few extra pesos, according to Lopez Obrador, who aims to fight crime by addressing the root causes, such as poverty, unemployment and a lack of education. “No Mexican is going to have the need to dedicate himself to these activities because they are going to have work, well-being and the support of the government,” Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday, announcing a special program to help local families with income subsidies of some 8,000 pesos (416 U.S. dollars). The Mexican government must tackle the challenges of combating corruption and impunity, as well as rehabilitating a degraded public sector, said Lopez Obrador.

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