Soldiers from an elite division of the army dedicated to combating pipeline theft came under repeated attack this week in the Red Triangle zone of Puebla, a region notorious for the crime.
On Wednesday, a group of specially-trained soldiers received an order to go to San Martín Texmelucan to support personnel from the state oil company Pemex to dismantle illegal taps on fuel pipelines running through the area.
The military contingent arrived at about 3:00pm in the La Purísima neighborhood and within 30 minutes managed to close several perforations on the Minatitlán-Mexico City pipeline.
But as they were leaving the soldiers were confronted by a pickup truck whose occupants opened fire, initiating a gun battle between the suspected fuel thieves and the army forces.
The pickup left the scene of the confrontation but stopped about 50 meters ahead, where two wounded men threw themselves out of the vehicle.
Soldiers approached the men with the intention of offering them first aid. One of the presumed criminals had sustained a gunshot wound to the head.
But at the same time a group of local residents arrived at the scene and aggressively repelled the military personnel, preventing them from offering any assistance to the injured men.
To avoid a second violent dispute, the soldiers decided to leave.
In a video that has circulated on social media, residents can be heard shouting “take out the AK-47,” seemingly with the intention of stopping the soldiers from confiscating the weapon from the pickup. In the same video, a woman yells: “Burn them!”
Just minutes later, another military group made up of one commander and six soldiers from the same elite division, accompanied by a Pemex official, arrived nearby as backup.
But a roadblock made up of angry residents stopped them before they could reach the location where the events had occurred.
The military personnel tried to engage in dialogue with the residents but were met with verbal aggression. The incident was filmed by a camera mounted on the helmet of one of the soldiers.
“Do you want war? Do you want war? Your colleagues overstepped the mark, there are four people wounded,” said one resident in the video obtained by the newspaper Milenio.
“They [the army personnel] came here to have a shootout, they [the civilian victims] weren’t doing anything,” shouted a woman, who also claimed that one of the victims was a minor.
“We’re not going to let you go in because you went too far. What is it that you want? We’ve let you work and haven’t caused any problems but now you’ve overstepped the line, you fucking assholes,” another said.
As the soldiers tried to garner more information about what had happened, the residents’ verbal aggression turned physical.
Large rocks were hurled at the military vehicle, several soldiers were pushed and another soldier who had remained inside the vehicle was violently pulled out and thrown to the ground, where his attackers proceeded to kick him.
“Burn the bastards, kill them already,” one member of the mob shouted.
The soldier who was filming the incident from the rear of the military vehicle also came under attack, at which point the footage turned to black, although sound continued to be recorded.
Shortly after a man is heard saying: “What did we agree, asshole? What did we agree on, Cruz? What had we spoken about?” seemingly suggesting that local residents had reached some kind of mutual arrangement with either a soldier or the Pemex official.
Several of the soldiers who came under attack have filed criminal complaints with the Puebla Attorney General’s office, which has opened an investigation into the incidents.
It is not the first time that Mexico’s military has clashed violently with fuel thieves known as huachicoleros in the Red Triangle region of Puebla.
In May last year, four soldiers and six presumed criminals were killed in two confrontations in the municipality of Quecholac, located about 95 kilometers southeast of the scene of Wednesday’s violence.
Mexico’s state-owned pipelines continue to bleed fuel at record levels despite increased efforts to combat the crime and during the first two months of this year, Puebla ranked third in terms of the number of illegal taps detected with 246.
Pemex CEO Carlos Treviño said Tuesday that the crime costs the state oil company 30 billion pesos (US $1.6 billion) per year.
The director of Downstream for Shell México said that that although the company is concerned by the high levels of pipeline theft, it is confident that authorities can get on top of the crime.
“. . . We believe in Mexico, we believe in Mexican institutions and we believe that between all of us, we’re going to solve this problem,” Andrés Cavallari said.
The elite division involved in Wednesday’s attacks only started operating on March 7 but has already disabled 302 illegal taps.
However, the task they and other security forces face is immense.
More than 10,000 pipeline taps were detected in 2017, a 51% increase on the previous year.
There is also evidence that Mexico’s notorious drug cartels have moved into the lucrative illicit fuel racket.