Death Toll Rises to 85 From Mexican Pipeline Explosion

The blast occurred Friday in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, about 70 miles north of Mexico City and some 13 miles from the Tula refinery, one of six owned and operated by state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.

Six of those who had been hospitalized died Sunday, bringing the death toll to 85, Health Minister Jorge Alcocer said.

Authorities have 65 reports of missing persons, who could be among those hospitalized or among people whose remains have been recovered from the blast site but have yet to be identified, said Hidalgo state Gov. Omar Fayad.

The tragedy came in the midst of a crackdown by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on widespread fuel theft from illegal taps of pipelines. The temporary closure of several key pipelines has led to gasoline shortages in parts of the country.

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“Huachicoleros,” as the gasoline thieves are known locally, steal roughly $3 billion a year in fuel from Pemex, according to government estimates.

As part of the crackdown on fuel theft, the government deployed about 5,000 military and federal police to guard Pemex’s refineries, distribution centers and fuel pipelines.

Friday’s explosion occurred on a stretch of the pipeline that runs from the seaport of Tuxpan, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, to the Tula refinery.

Mr. López Obrador defended the action of army troops who, in videos posted on social media, watched, as hundreds of local residents gathered to fill plastic containers from a geyser of fuel spouting from the pipeline.

“There are some people suggesting they should have been repressed. It’s not like that. We have to solve the root of problem,” he said at a Sunday press conference.

A massive blaze was triggered by a leaky pipeline in Tlahuelilpan in Mexico’s Hidalgo state on Friday. Photo: francisco villeda/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Residents on Sunday search for human remains and items that could help identify their missing relatives and friends at the site where a pipeline ruptured by oil thieves exploded. Photo: henry romero/Reuters

Attorney General Alejandro Gertz said authorities are looking for those responsible for the illegal tap but don’t intend to “victimize communities.”

Mr. López Obrador has said people often resort to fuel theft for lack of economic opportunities, and added that he plans this week to visit areas of Mexico affected by pipeline taps to talk about social programs.

Leaks and fires caused by illegal pipeline taps are frequent in Mexico, although Friday’s blast was the deadliest in at least a decade. In 2010, an oil pipeline that had been tapped by organized criminal gangs exploded in San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida, in the nearby state of Puebla, killing 29 people, including 13 children.

Also on Friday, fuel thieves punctured a pipeline that runs between the Tula refinery and the Salamanca refinery, causing a fire in the municipality of San Juan del Río in the central state of Querétaro. Pemex didn’t report any deaths or injuries from that fire.

Write to Anthony Harrup at anthony.harrup@wsj.com and Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com

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