WASHINGTON — Saboteurs who blew up natural gas pipelines that shut down one of Mexico's main industrial regions earlier this month also crippled an important crude oil pipeline in an operation that indicated extensive knowledge of Mexico's energy infrastructure, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Not only were oil and natural gas pipelines targeted, but the bombers also knew enough about energy installations to destroy the shutoff valves along several pipelines that allow for the wide national distribution of oil and natural gas.
"These are massive steel valves — they're gigantic," a U.S. official familiar with the bombing investigation told McClatchy Newspapers. "These are major, very expensive shutoff valves that control the flow of all this petroleum (and natural gas). This wasn't a round tube in the middle of nowhere."
And the bombers knew which side of the valve they should strike, ensuring that crude oil didn't flow to a nearby refinery and that natural gas didn't flow to foreign and Mexican manufacturers in the central Bajio region, said the official, who agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity of the probe in Mexico.
Other U.S. officials, who insisted on anonymity because the probe is still active, corroborated the story.
Targeting pipelines is a common tactic of Marxist guerrillas in Colombia, but it's rare in Mexico, the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States. The guerrillas' ability to strike oil pipelines is troubling because further attacks on oil installations could jeopardize Mexico's status as a reliable export supplier, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
"From a terrorist or criminal or insurgent point of view, it's a key pressure point. It embarrasses the government, creates some disruption. ... It's a nuisance that is a very costly one, and it diverts government resources," Hoffman said.
In two communiques late last week, the Ejercito Popular Revolucionario (Popular Revolutionary Army), known by its Spanish initials EPR, again claimed responsibility for the attacks and defended its decision to strike the state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX. It called the July 5 and July 10 pipeline bombings "self-defense" and demanded the release of two missing members. The EPR made it clear that the state oil company was a fair target for future actions.
Mexico's investigation into the explosions has largely been kept secret, and Mexican media accounts have been rife with conflicting information. The U.S. official said there's ample evidence that the explosions in the states of Queretaro and Guanajuato were the work of the EPR.
"There was a bunch of graffiti all over the walls that surround the tubing. They had EPR scribbled like graffiti all over one side of the wall," the official said. The explosives are also similar to bombs detonated in three locales in Mexico City last November that were attributed to the EPR.
Mexican government officials initially said the plastic explosives used in the bombings appeared to be of European origin. Now it's believed that the explosives were of a type commonly used in Mexican mining and construction.
The bombs detonated in the state of Queretaro on July 10 were placed under two of three pipelines that ran parallel and connected several important Mexican states that are home to subsidiaries of many U.S. manufacturers. The bombs blew open a natural gas pipeline with a diameter of 36 inches and a 14-inch pipeline carrying liquefied gas.
The intensity of the subsequent fire, which burned for 36 hours, caused the 16-inch crude oil pipeline in the middle to rupture and knocked out crude oil supplies in the region for several days.
"Pretty powerful blast, man," said the U.S. official, noting that the long blaze afterward destroyed most evidence that could have been collected. The blast left a roughly 30-foot crater.
In its statement, the EPR said its attacks were intended to hurt the Mexican government.
"Up until now, the people don't see any benefit from the (energy) resources that are generated, because these are monopolized by the state, the national and transnational private sector, and by the different groups holding power in the country," the EPR said in a July 18 statement posted on a Web site in Spain that hosts communiques from guerrilla groups in Latin America.
Given that reality, said the EPR, "the surgical hostile actions don't have the intent of damaging the 'patrimony of all Mexicans,'" but to attack the "neo-liberal policies of this government and even the complicity of some who say they belong to the left."
That reference to oil as a national patrimony underscores that attacking it is a politically dangerous move for any guerrilla group looking to lure disenfranchised Mexicans to its side. Oil is synonymous with national sovereignty. Mexican schoolchildren learn from a young age how Mexico nationalized British and American oil companies in 1938 and formed Pemex.
The EPR strikes carried the element of surprise. It's not clear, however, that the EPR is a strong enough organization to strike again in central Mexico or to attack in the southern regions, where Mexico exports to the oil-thirsty U.S. market.
"I would not be surprised if they hit something again in the same fashion, but I don't see them capable of doing anything bigger than that," said Pamela Starr, a veteran political analyst for the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm. "I don't see them doing it with great frequency."
But Jorge Lofredo, an Argentine political scientist who edits a Web site that posts communiques from Latin American guerrilla groups, said the EPR shouldn't be underestimated.
"By acting militarily in the states of the center-north of the republic, the EPR ended up crossing that imaginary line that separates the north from the south," said Lofredo in an e-mail response to questions. He was referring to the oft-cited two Mexicos, a rich north and an impoverished south. The EPR's recent bombings broke the historical mold of armed insurrection largely in the poor south and suggested it will instigate in wealthier regions of Mexico.
ON THE WEB
To access the Web site run by the Center for the Documentation of Armed Movements, which posts guerrilla communiques, go to: www.cedema.org