Dousing the fires of corruption

After a mass tragedy for gasoline thieves in Mexico, a new president offers a different way to deal with the evil of corruption.

Soldiers guard the site where a gasoline pipeline exploded on Jan. 18 in the village of Tlahuelilpan, Mexico.

Sometimes the battle against corruption is driven by more than righteous indignation at the guilty. On Jan. 22, for example, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, began a tour of municipalities where theft from gasoline pipelines is high. Just four days earlier, at least 90 people had been killed in a massive explosion while stealing fuel from an illegally tapped pipeline in the state of Hidalgo.

Instead of cracking down on such local thieves – most of them impoverished farmers – Mr. López Obrador, or AMLO as he is known, plans to offer them an alternative. “The most humble people are going to have incomes,” he promised. “They are going to have a way to work honorably without a need for these activities.”

His new welfare plan is aimed at the 80 municipalities known for their huachicoleros, or bands of thieves who clandestinely siphon fuel from state-owned pipelines. In Mexico, the price for just 1.3 gallons of gasoline is equivalent to the daily minimum wage.

“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 rest of society, he said.

AMLO also reacted in other affirmative ways. Compared with previous presidents, he was unusually transparent about the details of the fiery tragedy. “We must put honesty first as a way of life and as a form of government,” he said. He also promised accountability for officials of the state-owned petroleum company, Pemex, and any soldiers who may have been slow or negligent in preventing the incident. Mexicans are eager for government accountability.

Fuel theft costs Mexico about $3 billion a year. Worldwide, an estimated $130 billion or more is lost to hydrocarbons crime, such as smuggling, according to a 2017 study by the Atlantic Council. In Nigeria, some 30 percent of refined petroleum product is lost to some form of theft.

In December, as part of his overall campaign for honest governance, AMLO began to demand more tanker trucks be used to transport gasoline in order to stop pipeline theft. He also deployed security forces to guard pipelines. Yet key to his anti-corruption campaign is offering opportunities, such as scholarships and internships, to assist people in rejecting the lure of criminal activity. “We’ll find a way to face the violence problem without using force,” he says.

The persistence of corruption in the world may indeed require such an approach. “The fight against corruption mobilizes all of us because we want to do away with evil and injustice. But we should remember that casting the bad into the sea does not imply the sudden appearance on our shores of the good that we need,” writes Ricardo Hausmann, professor of the practice of economic development at Harvard University.

AMLO’s tour of municipalities after the Jan. 18 tragedy should serve as an example of how creating good for others can help vanquish evil better than merely attacking it.

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