- Mexico has seen a surge in fuel theft in recent years.
- Mexican organized-crime groups are responsible for much of the theft, but other criminals and even civilians take part.
- Mexican officials say they’ve had some success, but admit theft is on the rise.
Fuel theft is losing Mexico’s state-run oil firm Pemex more than $1.6 billion a year, the company’s director-general, Carlos Treviño, said earlier this week.
According to a Pemex report released earlier this month, fuel theft is at record levels. Fuel thieves, who are called huachicoleros, drilled 2,274 illegal taps in the company’s pipelines during the first two months of 2018 — 38% more than during the same period in 2017 and 352% more than were discovered in the first two months of 2014.
Gangs and organized-crime groups are the main perpetrators of fuel theft, but local residents have been known to tap pipelines for fuel to use or resell. Scores of Pemex employees have been accused of complicity in such theft.
Mexico’s Public Administration Secretariat said in October 2017 that it was investigating at least 40 Pemex workers in the northern state of Chihuahua on suspicion of stealing fuel. The workers allegedly overfill tanker trucks and then offload the extra fuel before the tankers reach gas stations.
At the end of March, federal authorities said 65 Pemex employees were among 299 public workers being investigated for corruption. Twenty-three of those 65 employees were being investigated for links to Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm implicated in a massive bribery scheme throughout Latin America. (Former Pemex CEO Emilio Lozoya has been accused of taking $10 million in bribes from Odebrecht in exchange for giving it contracts.)
During his comments on Tuesday, Treviño said Pemex had fired about 100 employees linked to fuel theft.
“Pemex is a victim of this scourge,” he said. “We have zero tolerance and when we have found someone who we believe is involved, we have reported them and we have fired them. It has always been this way.”
“One of the things we did last year was detain 1,600 people” caught committing theft, he added. “And around 1,300 face a judicial process in that respect. We have also detained more than 1,600 vehicles, which were seized and are under the protection of authorities, as well as recover more than 14 million liters of stolen fuel.”
Oil theft has surged in recent years, driven in part by growing involvement from organized-crime groups that are also involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and other crimes. Between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2018, there were numerous cases of thieves boarding or attempting to board ships or oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in order to steal fuel.
“The business is more profitable than drug trafficking because it implies less risk,” said Georgina Trujillo, a congresswoman from the governing PRI who heads the lower house energy commission.
“You don’t have to risk crossing the border to look for a market,” she told Reuters. “We all consume gasoline. We don’t all consume drugs.”
The states most heavily affected by theft are Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, Mexico state, Queretaro, Tlaxcala, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacan.
Pemex employees and other energy-industry workers in those states and elsewhere have been accused of organizing or assisting organized fuel-theft networks, but in other cases, workers at Pemex facilities have been forced into the activity by criminal groups, who threaten them and their families.
Criminal groups “get some of these Pemex employees, and they intimidate them [into] giving them information as to the routes that some of the petroleum is going to be taking, the timelines, how many people are working at these refineries, the amount of crew members … they get all the details,” Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider earlier this year.
Treviño, the Pemex chief, said Tuesday that a joint strategy pursued since mid-2016 by Pemex, Mexico’s Finance Ministry, and the armed forces had seen success. Part of that response has been shutting gas stations that buy stolen fuel and providing security escorts for fuel tankers traveling in high-risk areas.
“The strategy has worked, however, I must admit that it has not been sufficient,” he said.
He said there had been a “cockroach effect,” in which criminal activity changes location in response to state pressure, and he admitted that the number of reports of fuel theft continued to rise and there was still work to do.
“The effect is a little like a cat-and-mouse game. We do something, we hit them for a while, and they create another strategy,” he said. “The more reports made on the part of citizens, the faster we are going to find these criminals.