Mexican authorities have seized 11 tanker trucks and recovered more than 178,400 gallons of stolen fuel from across the country since Jan. 1, 2021.
The most recent action occurred Thursday, when a tanker truck carrying 64,000 gallons of stolen hydrocarbons was stopped in Tabasco state in southern Mexico by the National Guard, an agency that functions as the nation’s federal police.
“This stop was derived from inspection and surveillance patrols that we carried out to prevent theft and illegal distribution of hydrocarbons in Tabasco,” Mexico’s National Guard tweeted. “We detained the driver of a tractor-trailer that was transporting around 17,000 gallons of hydrocarbon without the necessary documentation.”
For more than a decade, large cartels like Los Zetas and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, as well as smaller community gangs, have been stealing resources from PEMEX, the Mexican state-owned petroleum company.
The fuel is often stolen by thieves drilling illegal taps into pipelines. The fuel is then hauled off in unregistered tanker trucks. The illicit fuel is then sold on the black market to taxi drivers, bus companies and long-haul truckers in Mexico and Texas.
In 2010, the president of Houston-based Trammo Petroleum admitted in court to receiving 22 tanker trucks of stolen PEMEX natural gas condensate at a terminal in Brownsville, Texas. The stolen petroleum products were then sold to other energy companies in Texas.
In 2011, the Mexican government also sued 12 U.S. oil and gas companies for buying up to $300 million of fuel stolen by gangs and smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The lawsuit, which included Houston-based ConocoPhillips and Shell Chemical Co., was settled in 2014 with a $27 million judgment for the Mexican government.
The Mexican government said fuel theft — huachicol as it is known in Spanish — decreased from about 60,000 barrels per day in 2018 to about 11,000 a day in 2019, with estimated savings of $6 billion.
According to Pemex, fuel theft averaged about 4,440 barrels per day in 2020. Pemex also said the number of illegal taps on fuel pipelines has decreased as much as 52% in parts of the country compared to the same period of 2019.
In 2019, the U.S. imported over 218 million barrels of Mexico’s heavy crude, while exporting more than 1.2 million barrels of refined petroleum products to Mexico (more than 70% of Mexico’s domestic gasoline, diesel and jet fuel consumption), according to the Department of Commerce.
Mexico’s anti-fuel theft tactics included closing theft-prone pipelines, moving more transportation to tanker trucks and militarizing several state oil installations in 2019. The operations have repaired 13,600 illegal taps on pipelines, and seized and recovered 3,800 tank trucks and 66 boats.
During the first 11 months of 2020, the top fuel theft states in Mexico were Hidalgo with 886 incidents, Puebla 861, Mexico state 665, Veracruz 502 and Guanajuato 443.
While the Mexican government said fuel theft is declining, violence tied to fuel theft gangs in Guanajuato state are causing a spike in murders since the beginning of the year. During the first 11 days of January, 119 people have been murdered.
Guanajuato state was one of the areas of focus for the Mexican government’s anti-fuel theft initiative beginning in 2018.
“An activity like [fuel theft] requires men, weapons, vehicles, warehouses, safe houses and networks of complicity at various levels of government. Once in existence, this criminal infrastructure can be used for other crimes (kidnapping, extortion, robbery, drug trafficking). So maybe there is less [fuel theft] than in the past, but this legacy continues there, used for many other things that generate spirals of violence,” security analyst Alejandro Hope said in El Universal.
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