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Feb 3, 2013 | 17:29 GMT

In Mexico, Rumors Surround the Pemex Explosion

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Rumors indicate that an explosive device may have triggered the Jan. 31 explosion in the basement of the headquarters of Petroleos Mexicanos, better known as Pemex, in Mexico City. According to other unconfirmed reports, two other explosive devices were in the building that did not detonate. If these claims are true, they would finally offer clarity on the blast, which left at least 32 people dead and more than 100 injured. The official position of the Mexican government, as stated by Pemex Director General Emilio Lozoya, remains that the explosion appears to have been an accident but that the government is pursuing all lines of investigation. 

Though the exact cause of the explosion is unknown at this point, the event could indicate a range of possible political challenges for the new administration, including criminal intimidation and political infighting. The reform of state-owned Pemex has formed the cornerstone of the administration of newly inaugurated President Enrique Pena Nieto. Mexico's declining oil production and exports have a direct impact on the national budget, which in any given year derives 30 to 40 percent of its revenue from Pemex. Reforms will aim to increase crude oil and natural gas production for both domestic consumption and export. As a result, for anyone looking to send a clear message to the new administration, Pemex is a natural target.

Although Mexico's drug cartels are the most obviously powerful set of violent actors in Mexico, to date they have refrained from using terrorist-type tactics against the government. Their operations have remained largely within the bounds of criminal violence designed to facilitate the business of illicit drugs. Unlike the decision of Colombia's Medellin cartel to engage in politicized violence during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Mexican drug gangs have largely kept their operations from directly challenging Mexico City. Should the cartels escalate their actions to political violence, it could push the Mexican government to invite U.S. forces into the country to combat the threat, something these criminal organizations wish to avoid. It is possible that the Pena Nieto administration is engaging in back-channel negotiations with one or another of Mexico's criminal groups in an effort to stem the violence, an action that could shift the calculus of cartels. There is no evidence to suggest that such a change has occurred, but if further evidence comes to light suggesting the cartels were involved in the Jan. 31 explosion, it would indicate a significant change in Mexico's political and security situation.   

If the explosion was indeed an attack, the more likely explanation may be political infighting. The changes that the Pena Nieto administration wishes to implement will make Pemex more transparent and efficient and will most likely undermine entrenched interests in the company. Notoriously corrupt, Pemex has long been accused of gross inefficiencies and its employees of pervasive graft. As a result, any efficiency reforms to Pemex will likely cause many to lose their privileged access to Pemex funds. This is not to say that the organization is unaware that changes must be made. In fact, the company has attempted in recent years to make a number of changes to increase output. But recent discussions that the new Pemex leadership, appointed by the Pena Nieto administration, will lay off thousands of employees have put new strain on the company and on the leading Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has a close relationship with Pemex union leaders.

Nevertheless, the explosion was very large for a political message stemming from an internal power struggle, and it is possible that it was a complete accident; a natural gas leak or a blown transformer could have caused an explosion of this size. Indeed, many media reports have pointed to Pemex's poor maintenance record as a possible explanation. If that is the case, then the incident may have no significant political implications. However, as the rumors suggest, an attack would indicate a significant setback in the first months of the Pena Nieto administration. 

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