For over twenty years, Francisco Guízar Pavón consolidated an empire in central Mexico built on stolen fuel to become the “King of Gasoline” but his murder last month marked the latest casualty of the increasingly deadly illegal fuel trade.

On the morning of February 21, Pavón was shot at least eight times with a high-caliber weapon by unidentified assailants while driving through the upscale neighborhood of Lomas de Angelópolis, in the city of Puebla, south of Mexico City. Pavón’s murder comes just over three months after the assassination of his son-in-law, a deputy for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI) in the neighboring state of Veracruz.

In addition to his residence in Puebla, Pavón also owned several luxury properties in his native Veracruz, where he founded his criminal enterprise, according to Diario Cambio. A former employee of the Mexican oil giant Pemex, Pavón first delved into illegal gasoline – commonly referred to in Mexico as “huachicol” – when he was laid off in 1993. He soon amassed a considerable fortune by capitalizing upon his contacts in the oil industry, who would tip him off when gasoline was passing through the massive oil pipelines that cross the state.

Pavón, or “Pancho G” as he was known in his hometown of Tierras Blancas, gained a reputation as a Robin Hood-like figure, providing locals with cheap gas and well-paying jobs in his criminal organization. Eventually, he branched out into other areas like farming, construction and taxis, all while continuing to build his oil theft empire to become known as Mexico’s “King of Gasoline.”

SEE ALSO: Cartel Takedown Won’t Solve Mexico’s Oil Theft Problem

The fact that Pavón ran his empire from Puebla is no surprise – the state has long been an epicenter of the illegal gas trade. Dozens of pipelines carrying fuel from the Gulf of Mexico intersect in a region in the center of the state known as the “Red Triangle” before branching off and continuing towards Mexico City and other areas. But while fuel theft has long been a problem in the state, the number of illegal taps has skyrocketed in recent years, increasing nearly 5,000 percent since 2010, according to Pemex data.

Increasing oil theft has been linked with spiraling violence, particularly in Guanajuato which became the deadliest state in Mexico in 2019, in large part due to violence related to oil theft, InSight Crime reported. But the daytime murder of Pavón is another reminder of how Puebla has become a battleground between rival groups fighting to control this lucrative economy.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made oil theft a major security priority for his administration, rallying against both the thieves themselves as well as corrupt Pemex officials. Nevertheless, his strategy of deploying the military to guard refineries, cracking down on criminal groups and transporting some oil supplies by truck, has seen only limited success. Despite reducing the amount of gasoline stolen, the number of illegal taps on oil pipelines has slightly increased.

InSight Crime Analysis

Pavón was part of the old guard of Mexican huachicoleros (oil thieves), his reputation as a benevolent folk hero a throwback to a bygone era when stolen fuel was a less violent, less contested criminal economy.

When oil theft first emerged as a sustained practice in the 1990s, oil thieves or “huachicoleros” operated on a small scale and generally eschewed violence, often preferring instead to earn the goodwill of locals through handouts of gasoline or sponsoring town festivals, Rolling Stone reported. Such thieves have been the subject of songs, and even have an informal patron saint, “El Niño Huachicolero” (The Boy Oil Thief) – a figure of the infant Jesus holding a jerry can and hose.

El Niño Huachicolero, the unofficial patron saint of oil thieves

However, with the entry of larger cartels, oil theft became far more violent. In 2010, the Zetas became the first cartel to muscle in on huachicol. Using military-style equipment and tactics, the group added oil theft to their criminal portfolio which already included extortion, kidnapping, arms trafficking and drugs.

Oil theft became a multi-billion dollar trade, reaching an estimated $3.25 billion in 2018, before President López Obrador’s reforms. One Zetas sicario even went as far as declaring that illegal gasoline was “approximately as profitable as drugs,” in a Rolling Stone investigation.

SEE ALSO: Stopping Oil Theft in Mexico Futile Game of Whac-a-Mole

Today, the two groups most known for oil theft are the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), one of the country’s two largest criminal groups, and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, which specializes in illegal gasoline but is mostly confined in Guanajuato. The two groups have contributed to an explosion of violence in Central Mexico, with massacres and targeted assassinations alike. It is likely that Pavón was one of the many victims of this conflict.

In Puebla, the CJNG is reportedly fighting a remnant of the now-defunct Zetas, known as the Old School Zetas (Zetas Vieja Escuela), for control of the oil trade, according to a December 2019 report by the United States Congressional Research Service.

After Pavón’s death, it is unlikely that another King of Gasoline will emerge to claim the throne; the context that propelled him to the top of the fuel game has simply changed too much. Facing an uncertain government crackdown, it is far more likely that the remaining scraps of his huachicol empire will be fought over by neighboring cartels, fanning the flames of conflict even further.

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