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Drug group may have set off oil blast that killed 28 in central Mexico

December 20, 2010 | 10:23 am

Residents flee puebla mexico el universal

A powerful pre-dawn pipeline explosion in a central Mexican state left at least 28 people dead on Sunday. The chief suspected cause of the blast is an illegal tap, possibly by the drug group the Zetas, as cartels increasingly attempt to steal crude and gas from state-owned oil lines.

Dozens were injured and 115 homes were damaged in what was described as a series of blasts at a pumping station in San Martin Texmelucan, a town on the main road between Mexico City and the city of Puebla, capital of Puebla state. The smoke plume that rose after the destruction was visible for much of Sunday from neighboring communities as well as in other states.

Witnesses said "rivers of fire" consumed the town's streets.

One survivor recounted how she attempted to rescue her father from a bedroom but a metal door had turned into "gum," El Universal reported (link in Spanish). The flames engulfed homes and incinerated victims, including many children.

President Felipe Calderon arrived at San Martin Texmelucan by the afternoon and met with residents. Here are photos and coverage of the incident in Spanish.

The state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said in a statement that a rapid drop in pressure on the 30-inch pipeline suggested a "clandestine tap" (link in Spanish). The line, named Nuevo Teapa, carries fuel from its origin at a port in Tabasco state on the Gulf of Mexico and heads to a refinery in Hidalgo, northeast of Mexico City, Bloomberg reported.

Pemex loses millions of barrels a year to drug groups -- primarily, the Gulf Coast-based Zetas gang -- in thefts that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The stolen fuel is believed to be trafficked by the Zetas and sold in the United States as cartels seek to diversify their criminal enterprises. The Pemex chief said Sunday that the section of pipeline that erupted in San Martin Texmelucan had been tapped at least 60 times before, and 550 cases of illegal tapping have been reported nationwide.

The Times recently looked at how the drug war has affected production at Pemex in a report in September. Pemex work sites are often attacked and raided by kidnappers, who yank away workers. In May, at least 30 men disappeared from a Pemex plant in Tamaulipas by presumed Zetas.

Sunday's incident joins other major Pemex accidents that have killed scores in Mexico, although previous disasters have been blamed on incompetence and corruption. In 1984, a massive explosion at a Pemex plant in the state of Mexico left more than 500 dead. In 1992, more than 200 died in a leak explosion in downtown Guadalajara.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Residents flee and watch as smoke rises in San Martin Texmelucan, Puebla, after the pipeline blast that left at least 28 dead. Credit: El Universal 

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