Mexico gasoline thievery on the rise in 2018

In this July 11, 2017 photo, state police drive past a column of smoke rising from a burning warehouse of stolen fuel, as they wait for armed fuel thieves to leave a cornfield near Tepeaca, Puebla state, Mexico. Image: CP Images

The years-long gasoline thievery problem that has plagued Mexico, costing state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and private companies hundreds of billions in pesos and billions in U.S. dollars, persisted in 2018, according to officials.

Pemex said in a year-end statement that illegal taps from pipelines in the country increased by 45 per cent in the first months of 2018, with illegal perforations on track to exceed last year’s record.

Pemex said there were 12,581 taps detected on Pemex-owned and privately-owned pipelines between January and the end of October, compared to 8,664 in the same period of 2017.

More the half of the taps occured in the central Mexican and Gulf of Mexico coastal states of Puebla, Hidalgo, Guanajuato and Veracruz, states that are notorious for huachicoleros, criminal gangs that rely in part on the thievery.

On average, there were 41 illegal taps every day between Jan. 1 and October 31.

Former Pemex CEO Carlos Trevino said in October that the thefts were expected to cost Pemex 35 billion pesos this year, equal to about US$1.75 billion.

From 2012 to 2018, during the term of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, there were 41,316 illegal taps, by far the most ever during a six-year presidential term.

During the previous six-year term of President Felipe Calderon there were 4,865 taps and, between 2000 and 2006, when President Vicente Fox was in office, there were only 890 taps.

The escalation in taps has occurred despite efforts by Pemex to increase pipeline surveillance and the involvement of the Mexican military in the policing of pipelines.

In some parts of Mexico, such as the rural region of Puebla state known as the Red Triangle, pipeline theft is so common that a subculture, with its own saint and songs, has formed around it.

The thefts are also linked to rising crime rates overall on states such as Guanajuato, an industrial area where several auto plants are located and violence is a serious issue.

In Puebla, a clash last year between the army and huachicoleros left 10 people dead, including four soldiers.

There is evidence that Mexico’s notorious drug cartels have moved into the lucrative illicit fuel market, while some Pemex employees have come under investigation for alleged involvement in fuel theft.

The new government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pledged to combat pipeline thefts, which Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo singled out earlier this month as a key contributing factor to the high levels of violence in Mexico.

Lopez Obrador has said the government will pass legislation making pipeline theft a serious crime.