Secretary of National Defense via AP
- Fuel theft has increased dramatically in Mexico.
- The crime has diverted billions of dollars in profits from Mexico’s state oil company.
- The theft, and the government’s crackdown on it, has also pushed up the country’s already high level of violence.
On March 2, the 135th victim of a mid-January explosion in the town Tlahuelilpan in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo died at a hospital in Mexico City.
The blast occurred as people collected gasoline from a breached pipeline. Mexican soldiers were filmed looking on at the site hours before the explosion and were criticized for not clearing people away from the volatile spill.
Fuel theft has become widespread in Mexico, carried out by local residents and criminal groups alike, causing billions of dollars in losses for state oil firm, Petroleos de Mexico, or Pemex, and for the government.
Mexico’s fight against "huachicol," another term for fuel theft — practitioners of which are called "huachicoleros" — is not new, but Lopez Obrador, who won a landslide presidential election with a campaign focused on combating graft, has taken it on with new vigor, sending out thousands of troops in deployments that have created new flash points between Mexicans and their country’s security forces.
Below, you can see how the effort has put troops and civilians at odds.
Much of the fuel is stolen through illegal pipeline taps, which can range from crude punctures to sophisticated valves. The number of such taps rose from 132 in 2001 to 3,348 in 2014. In 2016, Pemex reported 6,873 illegal taps, which nearly doubled in 2017 to 10,363. In 2018, Pemex reported finding 12,581.
AP Photo/Claudio Cruz
For some time, fuel theft was largely done by local thieves or by people from rural and isolated communities, who used stolen fuel for their own needs or sold it to supplement their income.
But in recent years, the lucrative nature of fuel theft — smuggling and reselling stolen fuel is often easier than illegal narcotics — has drawn in organized criminal groups, which bring a greater ability to corrupt and larger capacity for violence to the trade.
Organized criminal groups are able to use their connections to and control over law enforcement or Pemex workers to steal whole shipments in tanker trucks.
Much of the theft takes place in the states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo, and Puebla, which border Mexico City to the north and east. Puebla is a hub, particularly in a region known as the Red Triangle, through which much of the fuel going from Mexico City to the rest of the country transits.
AP Photo/Claudio Cruz
Source: Justice in Mexico project
But Guanajuato, home to Mexico’s second-oldest refinery, has become a focal point for fuel theft and for Lopez Obrador’s crackdown. That was on vivid display last week when soldiers and police rolled into the town of Santa Rosa de Lima.
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