An estimated 500 people are blocking the Puebla-Orizaba highway today in protest against a violent clash between federal security forces and presumed pipeline thieves that killed 10 people last night.
Four soldiers and six presumed criminals died during two confrontations in the community of Palmarito, located in the municipality of Quecholac, one of several that lie within the Red Triangle, notorious for thefts from petroleum pipelines.
Army personnel were responding to a report of a pipeline theft in progress but when they arrived at the scene at 8:15pm the suspected thieves opened fire, killing two soldiers.
Authorities said later that soldiers were unable to return fire because their attackers had taken cover behind women and children.
The soldiers withdrew but returned at 11:00 when they were fired on once again, this time by gunmen travelling in a convoy of trucks. There were no women or children present this time around and the soldiers fired back.
Two more soldiers died in the second clash.
The final toll was six armed civilians dead and 10 soldiers wounded. Twelve people were taken into custody in the operation, in which some 600 soldiers took.
At a press conference today, Puebla Governor Antonio Gali lamented that the criminal presence in the region was “poisoning families and children,” and labeled the civilian attackers as cowards for using women and children as a shield.
“It would be worthwhile for the families of those children and youths to consider whether the economic resources [produced by pipeline theft] are worth risking their death.”
He said the operations to curtail the thefts would continue.
The official version of events is being rejected today by some Palmarito residents, who claim the military opened fire on innocent people who were fleeing a swarm of bees, mistakenly thinking they were huachicoleros, or pipeline thieves, trying to get away.
Stealing petroleum products has become an important source of income for many families in the region, and a culture has even grown around the practice.