MEXICO CITY — Word spread quickly: free gasoline. It was spewing from a pipeline, through a hole punched by fuel thieves. People — as many as 900, by some estimates — flocked to the rupture, many carrying containers to fill.
But just as quickly, the apparent windfall on Friday turned to disaster when the pipeline exploded in flames, killing at least 89 and wounding scores more.
Amid the national lamenting, some Mexicans have insisted that the victims had only themselves to blame: They were breaking the law, pilferers taking what wasn’t theirs, and had put themselves in harm’s way.
But the man steering the nation’s response to the incident, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has rejected that view, arguing that the people were compelled to participate by the poverty and unemployment caused by past government policies.
“We have the conviction that the people are good, that they are honest, that if they arrived at these extremes, these practices, it’s because they were completely abandoned” by the state, he said at a news conference over the weekend.
His cabinet has followed suit. “We are not going to victimize the communities,” said Alejandro Gertz, Mexico’s attorney general.
The disaster, which occurred in the state of Hidalgo just north of Mexico City, has become a major early test of the policy and leadership of Mr. López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1.
The president’s response has revealed a central tension as he has sought to walk a difficult tightrope between two longstanding vows: being tough on crime and corruption wherever it occurs, and lifting up the poor and marginalized — even those who sought to steal the nation’s oil.
“This is where he gets into trouble,” said Jaime López Aranda, a security analyst in Mexico City. “The poor come first, they are good. But they were basically stealing.”
Mr. López Aranda continued: “If they hadn’t died, it would’ve been a lot more complicated. Then the story would’ve been: Why didn’t you arrest them? You’re supposed to be tough on fuel theft, and these people were stealing fuel. But they died and it changed everything.”
In the days since the disaster, Mr. López Obrador has generally received high marks for his response to the disaster, and criticism has been notably scarce.
He has been applauded, even by some of his critics, for quickly making himself the face of the government’s response and assuming responsibility.
On Friday, within hours of the accident, he rushed to the municipality where the blast had occurred, met with local officials and spoke with the news media. And since then he has held lengthy, twice-a-day news conferences — the first at dawn and the other at dusk — at which cabinet members and other key officials have commented on the emergency and the government’s response.
“Mexico is hungry for accountability and he’s providing it,” said Viridiana Ríos, a visiting assistant professor of government at Harvard University and a columnist for the Mexican daily Excélsior. “It is refreshing to see him being so hands-on.”
Mr. López Obrador’s visibility stands in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, former President Enrique Peña Nieto, who rarely held news conferences, even in times of national crisis.
That difference is not lost on Mr. López Obrador, who has sought in recent days to draw a distinction between his management of the crisis and the approach of prior administrations, emphasizing the importance he puts on accountability and transparency.
“We’re not going to conceal anything,” he said at a news conference on Sunday. “Of course, there’s a long history of deceptions, the concealing of truth, and mistrust among the population. We aren’t the same as those who came before.”
He has also insisted that Mr. Gertz, the attorney general, will oversee a thorough investigation into the causes of the explosion and the performance of government officials and of the nation’s security forces responsible for protecting both the pipeline and the population.
But he has also steadfastly refused to implicate the victims. Those who were seeking to nab some free gasoline had approached the pipeline with “the innocence of thinking that there were no risks,” he said.
The president has instead tried to shift attention to the deep societal problems like inequality and poverty that, he insists, underpin the nation’s crime problem.
He has blamed endemic corruption and the economic policies of past administrations for creating these conditions. “The people were abandoned, the people were impoverished,” he said on Monday.
On Tuesday, he will unveil a community development program aimed at municipalities where fuel theft is deeply entrenched and where many residents have found work in the illicit industry — or at least enjoyed the benefit of the black market’s low-cost fuel.
Mr. López Obrador also plans to spend Tuesday and Thursday visiting several of these communities to talk about the new development program and implore residents to collaborate in his fight against corruption.
“The must humble people are going to have incomes, they are going to have a way to work honorably without a need for these activities,” he said.
Ms. Ríos commended the president for his approach.
“We need to be empathetic,” she said. “These were people who saw an opportunity to enrich themselves because the minimum daily wage is equivalent to five liters of gasoline.” In Mexico, where labor is so cheap, she said, “you should expect something like this to happen.”
But the López Obrador administration has not been able to completely sidestep criticism.
The performance of the nation’s security forces, in particular, has come under scrutiny.
On Friday, soldiers were dispatched to the scene of the pipeline rupture in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, yet did not cordon off the area. Officials said the soldiers tried to drive away the crowd, but they were vastly outnumbered and met with hostile resistance, leaving them no option but to stand by idly.
The state oil company, Pemex, is also being scrutinized for possible delays in shutting off the pipeline after the rupture was reported.
The disaster has drawn further scrutiny to Mr. López Obrador’s strategy for combating fuel theft, which requires a tricky balancing act: He wants to crack down on criminals while making sure the country’s security forces protect ordinary citizens without using too heavy a military hand.
Antonio Navalón, a political analyst and columnist for the Mexican daily El Financiero, said Mr. López Obrador had “failed” on this front.
The military’s handling of the throng at the pipeline revealed what he called “a lack of technical capacity and policy,” and said the troops should have been better prepared to handle the situation.
“The circumstances in which the tragedy happened — where you have massive theft, in the middle of a national battle against fuel theft — made clear he doesn’t know where to draw the line between protecting people and continuing the fight against the bad guys,” Mr. Navalón said.
As part of the crackdown, which was launched in December, the administration shut down oft-targeted pipelines, shifting the transportation of fuel to tanker trucks. But that tactic caused distribution problems and widespread shortages at service stations.
Survivors of the pipeline explosion and other witnesses said some of the victims had gone to the pipeline rupture with their gasoline canisters because shortages had left them without fuel for their vehicles.
The widespread supply problems have left some observers with the sense the López Obrador administration had launched the crackdown without adequate planning.
“Honestly, I don’t think there is a strategy,” said Mr. López Aranda, the security analyst. “I’ve become convinced that they’re making it up as they go.”
But the president, whose attack on fuel thieves has enjoyed robust support in recent polling, has vowed to maintain his approach.
“I have received a lot of support, many signs of solidarity, and they have expressed to me that I not back down in the fight against corruption,” he said Sunday. “I already made the decision to continue on and cleanse the country of corruption.”
Orignially published in NYT.