Tlahuelilpan deaths not accidental

January 30, 2019

“They do it out of necessity, because of hunger. There’s no work here, and people earn very little farming. —Tlahuelilpan resident

Mexico City—The horrendous tragedy in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico, when over 100 died a horrible death and many more were injured, primarily members of campesino families, has shaken all of Mexico. Whether the explosion of the oil pipeline came from an accidental spark or something more deliberate may never be known. What we do know is that it was a tragedy long in the making.


El huachicoleo, or robbing oil from the hundreds of miles of pipelines, has occurred for decades. Recently, the oil taps—under the control of organized criminal gangs—have risen exponentially to over 10,000 a year. It is big business estimated to be worth some 65 billion pesos a year. This could not have occurred without: the complicity of some higher level PEMEX (the state oil company) workers/administrators; the cooperation of some elements in the army charged with guarding the pipelines; the complicit or forced agreement of towns where the taps are located; and certainly without the knowledge of some PRI and PAN government administrators, who chose to ignore the robbery of Mexico’s natural resource. In 1938 President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry. Even so, oil has never been under the control of Mexico’s masses and is now exploited by criminals.

One can begin to grasp the exploitation, the corruption and money-grubbing that extractive capitalism has wrought here in Mexico by glancing at the titles of the books by the most serious researcher on the fate of oil in Mexico, Ana Lilia Pérez:

  • Blue Shirts, Black Hands. The Looting of Pemex from Los Pinos;
  • The Black Cartel. How Organized Crime Took Over Pemex; and
  • RIP Pemex. The Life and Assassinaion of Mexico’s Main Enterprise.


El huachicoleo is almost an identical twin to the narco-trafficking that has deeply wounded our country. They are identical in the billions of dollars involved in the robbery of our natural resources, in their methods of enforcement and violence from criminal gangs; in the cover-up and corruption involving businesses and government officials; and in the complicity of police and military forces. Indeed, el huachicoleo and narco-traffic expose the nature of Mexico’s ruling elites and their enforcers over decades.


What of the reality of the citizens of Tlahuelilpan and the dozens of other rural communities in Hildago, in Puebla, and in many other states, who live in poverty-stricken communities and see the oil pipelines cross their territory with “black gold” while they struggle to exist? The six municipalities of Puebla are part of the so-called Red Triangle of huachicol where 70% to 81.9% of the population live in poverty. That exceeds the national average by almost 40 points. The Red Triangle comprises the Acajete municipalities, with 77.7% inhabitants in poverty; Tepeaca, 69.6; Quecholac, 80.9; Acatzingo, 79.8; Tecamachalco, 71.9, and Palmar de Bravo, 81.9 percent. There are similar poverty numbers in other states.

For decades federal and state governments ignored these communities. This created space for criminal gangs to “milk” the oil from pipelines, at times coercing people to go along with el huachicoleo, including giving precarious illegal employment where no jobs exist, with the ever-present danger of fire, explosions and deaths that occur with regularity. They also promise gasoline at bargain rates at the same time as the price of gasoline skyrockets.


Where the governments of the PRI and PAN parties had at best ignored el huachicoleo, López Obrador, with his pledge to fight corruption, decided to confront this robbery. The gangs retaliated by increasing the tapping of oil pipes. Then came the tragedy at Tlahuelilpan. To his credit López Obrador immediately went to Tlahuelilpan and he did not blame the victims, noting that it was out of necessity not greed that they took gasoline. Finally he promised and implemented a government aid program, but only for some in the communities.

Here we confront the difference between political promises, even if genuine, and the economic reality to be able to carry them out. Where are the funds to make a difference in these communities—with jobs, education, and services? While some communities have been promised money and services, others, such as the Red Triangle communities, are not yet included. Will they be? Can aid, instituted top-down from the government, make a difference? Self-determination for these communities—as the Zapatistas have advocated and practiced—is not even discussed. Autonomy cannot be instituted from above by the government, but needs to come from the communities themselves practicing self-organizing. For that, social movements are needed.

Equally fundamental are the limitations of López Obrador’s project. It is top to bottom an acceptance of capitalism. López Obrador is opposed to the vulgar neoliberal excesses, and is willing to have more state regulation, and private-state joint projects. But his program is one of developmentalism, be it a Mayan train, a big agriculture program for southern Mexico, or various other mega-projects. Central to all, is his acceptance of extractive capitalism. López Obrador sees oil, mining, and various mega-projects as the motor of Mexico’s development, but they never challenge capitalism’s premise of production and more production, of the exploitation of human labor power as the basis of society’s development. This program leaves no room for human liberation.


Tlahuelilpan is not only a human tragedy, but an indication of our social reality. The only way to overcome that reality, the contradictions we live under—corruption, exploitation, despoliation of the land, displacement of original peoples, lack of meaningful work for millions, sexism and racism—is through social transformation: a dual movement of destroying the old social order and constructing a new one. It is a revolution in action and in thought that does not come from above, but from social movements in unity with working out a philosophy of human emancipation. Anything less will be unable to uproot the corruption, overthrow class society with its sexism and racism (that is, capitalism), and open the door to genuine freedom.

–Marxist-Humanist in Mexico, Jan. 26, 2019

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