HomeNewsAnalysisExecution Highlights Mexico’s Inability to Combat Rampant Fuel Theft
ANALYSIS

Execution Highlights Mexico's Inability to Combat Rampant Fuel Theft

HUMAN RIGHTS / 11 MAY 2017 BY DAVID GAGNE EN

Videos that appears to show a soldier executing a presumed oil thief at point blank range in Mexico draws attention to the inability of the government to come up with an effective response to a criminal industry now worth in excess of an estimated $1 billion per year.

Several videos recently published by Diario Cambio and other Mexican news outlets capture deadly confrontations between civilians and soldiers that took place on May 3 in Palmarita, a town in the Mexican state of Puebla. One video shows a military convoy stopping a white pick-up truck. A man is removed from the truck and dragged to the ground, but the soldiers' attention is diverted by something off screen. The man can be seen getting up before firing several shots; one soldier immediately falls to the ground, apparently dead. 

Another video shows a car receiving gunshots as it slowly backs up. The car body and windshield are pockmarked by the impact of the bullets. Soldiers later take several men out the car and place them on the ground. One of the suspects, who looks to be injured, is given the coup de grâce in the back of the head while lying face down on the ground, apparently by one of the soldiers. The end of the footage shows the soldiers taking down the camera that captured the incident.

Mexico's National Defense Secretariat (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional - SEDENA) issued a press release on May 3 stating that at around 8:15 p.m., soldiers in Palmarita were attacked by the oil thieves, known locally as "huachicoleros," who reportedly used women and children as human shields. SEDENA later said another attack took place that night at 10 p.m. Ten people were killed in all, including four soldiers, while 14 others were injured. This marked the first time Mexican soldiers had been killed during a confrontation with oil thieves, according to BBC Mundo

Following the dissemination of the videos, the Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General de la República - PGR) announced it has opened an investigation into whether the suspect was killed by a member of SEDENA. The defense secretariat said it "will collaborate in all that is necessary with the Attorney General's Office" in order to determine if any criminal acts took place. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The May 3 confrontations signal a violent escalation in the battle between law enforcement and oil theft networks, which in recent years have become more prolific both in Puebla and across Mexico. Citing officials from Mexico's state-owned oil company Pemex, the New York Times reported in April that Puebla's authorities registered over 1,500 illegal taps of pipelines last year, almost doubling the previous year's total. Nationwide, the number of illegal taps has increased almost 15-fold over the last seven years, from 462 in 2009 to 6,873 in 2016, according to the Times. Mexican news outlet Animal Político estimates Pemex lost over $1.5 billion in stolen fuel last year.

While none of Mexico's traditional crime organizations have been linked to the latest incident, groups like the Zetas are becoming more involved in fuel theft as they seek to expand their criminal portfolio beyond drug trafficking. 

In response, the government has taken steps to impede the growth of a burgeoning criminal industry. President Enrique Peña Nieto recently ordered his security cabinet to devise a national strategy in conjunction with officials from the four states that have been hardest hit by fuel theft. Congress has also moved to increase the penalties for oil theft to a maximum of 25 years in prison. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

But criminal groups have taken measures of their own to ensure the oil -- and cash -- keeps flowing. Alberto Islas, a founding partner of the Mexico City-based security consultancy Risk Evaluation, told InSight Crime that oil theft gangs are becoming more sophisticated in their technical know-how, which enables them to tap pipelines without causing as many explosions. Blasts caused by botched attempts at oil theft have proven deadly in the past, with one incident from 2010 killing 27 people in Puebla. 

Islas noted that the increased revenue this generates provides the gangs with more resources to corrupt authorities, an invaluable asset to these groups. Oil theft "could not [happen] without the complicity" of local authorities and Pemex officials, he said.

El Universal reported in January that 123 Pemex workers and a dozen former workers were arrested on oil theft charges between 2006 and 2015. However, as InSight Crime has previously pointed out, this is likely only a fraction of the actual number of state oil workers colluding with criminal networks. Any additional personnel the government plans on deploying to combat oil theft will be suspectible to the same temptations unless the authorities develop a way to safeguard against corruption.  

The oil gangs have found other mechanisms to thwart the authorities. They have endeared themselves to locals by offering them wages higher than those they could obtain in the legal economy and by selling gasoline at prices far below market value, the Times reported. Some of the gangs have even started to cover medical costs and pay for other services, earning a Robin Hood-like status among local residents. One municipal police official told the Times that residents will often stop his officers from entering certain neighborhoods out of solidarity with the gangs. 

Meanwhile, the apparent execution of a civilian adds to the litany of suspected abuses carried out by Mexico's security forces in recent years. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has documented several cases in which either the military or the police have committed extrajudicial killings, including the execution of 15 suspects at a warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya in June 2014. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Rights

The recent incident also demonstrates the high level of risk facing Mexican soldiers involved in crime-fighting operations. 

“The Mexican army does not have a legal framework to intervene in crimes," Islas told InSight Crime. "This puts them at risk."

He noted that since soldiers do not carry handcuffs, it can be difficult to immobilize a suspect without using force. In this most recent case in Puebla, the military personnel had no way of keeping the suspect on the ground, enabling him to get up and fire several shots, apparently killing at least one soldier. 

"The people in organized crime are prepared," Islas said. "They have a strategy." 

For now, it appears the same can't be said about the government. 

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