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Mexican troops sent to guard energy facilities

July 13, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Felipe Calderon has dispatched a new 5,000-strong elite military unit to guard strategic sites, including oil refineries and hydroelectric dams, in the wake of guerrilla attacks on pipelines operated by the national oil and gas company, Pemex, according to news reports Thursday.

Business leaders said as many as 1,000 factories and other businesses in the Guanajuato-Queretaro region of central Mexico have been forced to shut down or reduce operations this week because of fuel shortages caused by attacks this month.

The leftist Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, claimed responsibility for the attacks Tuesday, saying they were in retaliation for the disappearance of two of their militants last year in the southern state of Oaxaca.

The EPR communique said the rebels had bombed three pipelines and a switching station in Queretaro and Guanajuato states. The explosions severed natural gas pipelines and a crude oil pipeline that links storage facilities in the Gulf of Mexico port of Poza Rica to a refinery in Salamanca, in Guanajuato, reducing fuel supplies in the region.

A fire that had burned in Queretaro since a bombing Tuesday was extinguished late Wednesday, Pemex officials said. Two hundred workers were working Thursday to repair the damaged lines.

Natural gas deliveries to residential customers have been scaled back in several cities in the region this week, including Celaya and Irapuato.

The attacks shook a government already facing challenges on several fronts: drug traffickers who outgun the police in several areas, a stalled immigration reform bill in the United States, and declining output from Pemex, the country's main source of foreign exchange.

"All we Mexican men and women of good will categorically reject violence because we wish to live in liberty and peace," Calderon said Wednesday in his only reference to the attacks this week.

He is dispatching the Corps of Federal Support Forces, an elite army unit created in May for the government's war against drug trafficking, the newspaper El Universal reported Thursday. Mexican officials confirmed the presence of troops at the oil facilities but did not say which units were sent.

A business group, the National Chamber of Transformation Industries, estimated that shutdowns caused by the pipeline explosions were costing central Mexico businesses $5 million to $10 million in losses each day.

The region known as the Bajio, centered in Guanajuato and Queretaro, is home to some of Mexico's largest industrial plants. And at least a dozen major companies in the region reported shutdowns or slowdowns this week related to the attacks, including Honda, Hershey, Kellogg and Nissan.

Grupo Modelo, Mexico's largest beer maker, was affected because Mexico's largest glassmaker, Grupo Vitro, temporarily shut down glass factories in Queretaro and Guadalajara.

"The damage to the economy is serious," Ruben Aguilar Valenzuela wrote Thursday in the commentary in the newspaper Reforma. "This [guerrilla] action was well thought out.... They picked a strategic objective."

According to news reports, Mexican authorities believe the bombers used an explosive gel often employed in underground mining.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

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