HomeNewsAnalysisWhy Oil Theft Spread Across Latin America During Pandemic
ANALYSIS

Why Oil Theft Spread Across Latin America During Pandemic

ARGENTINA / 1 OCT 2020 BY ALICIA FLÓREZ EN

From mostly being a lower-level criminal economy, oil theft has spread across Latin America during the coronavirus pandemic as a way for gangs to supply thriving black markets and shore up their finances.

But while most instances of oil theft concerned illegal taps on pipelines most commonly associated with Mexico, more daring criminal groups have attacked oil platforms out at sea or built their own makeshift refineries.

On September 15, in Ecuador, soldiers found a clandestine refinery in the province of Sucumbíos near a pipeline crossing the country’s border with Colombia. Pipes took the stolen oil from the pipeline to the facility 170 meters away, which had the capacity to refine up to 500 gallons of crude oil at a time and load it up onto boats.

In early September, Argentinean authorities dismantled a large-scale operation to steal gasoline from the country’s state-owned oil company, YPF. 21 people were arrested, including a number of the company’s staff and a local councilor in Lanús near Buenos Aires, for allegedly stealing oil worth $5 million a year from YPF facilities. The stolen oil was transported in tanker trucks to clandestine refineries and then sold illegally in gas stations.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coronavirus and Organized Crime

These were far from the only cases reported. Also in September, the United Federation of Oil Workers of Venezuela (Federación Unitaria de Trabajadores Petroleros de Venezuela – Futpv) denounced that certain oil companies were illegally selling off the limited production the country still has. Venezuela, which has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, has seen its thriving oil industry collapse to the point that it now sees gasoline smuggled in from neighboring Colombia, a complete reversal of former criminal dynamics.

In Colombia, Ecopetrol has sounded the alarm over a marked increase in illegal taps detected in its infrastructure. Between January and August 2020, it found close to 900 taps nationwide, compared to 747 detected in the same period of 2019. Most of these were found on the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, largely located in the department of Norte de Santander, and are most likely connected to cocaine production. In April, InSight Crime reported on illegal refineries in Norte de Santander, manufacturing “pategrillo,” a low-quality fuel used in cocaine production.

In Paraguay, family clans are reportedly stealing oil from barges transporting it along the Paraná River and then selling it in local communities. Local media reports have explained that robberies have seen up to 70,000 liters of gasoline stolen in a single night. In August, a women was allegedly assassinated in the southwestern city of Pilar after making reports about such thefts. Since then, prosecutors have led renewed investigations but have also reportedly received threats.

And in Mexico, where oil theft has been a constant topic of debate in the last two years, tens of millions of barrels have been stolen during the coronavirus lockdown. And attacks on oil platforms out at sea have also increased. From January to June 2020, authorities registered 19 such attacks, compared to 20 in all of 2019 and 16 in 2018, according to the New York Times. In July, the US Embassy in Mexico even issued a special alert addressing pirates operating in Mexican waters.

InSight Crime Analysis

While oil theft has been a constant problem in countries like Mexico, it has become a criminal economy of choice during the pandemic, as other means of criminal income have suffered.

At a time of increased economic pressure and unemployment, black market demand for gasoline has soared from communities in central Mexico to villages at the Brazil-Venezuela border.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

One journalist who has covered oil theft in Colombia told InSight Crime that as authorities have focused on enforcing a lockdown and cracking down on more violent forms of organized crime during the pandemic, oil theft has often flown under the radar.

In response, criminal groups have used a range of methods to extract oil from pipelines, showing how they have adapted to the demand and opportunity in each country. For example, smaller structures in Venezuela and Paraguay have intensified their activities in recent months, while large-scale rings, including corrupt officials, dedicated to extracting, refining and selling off the oil have been found in Argentina and Colombia.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

COVID AND CRIME / 22 JUL 2021

After peddling fake tests and vaccines for the coronavirus, criminals are now selling counterfeit vaccination certificates in Mexico City, allowing…

COLOMBIA / 20 JAN 2014

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro has blamed the country's violence and drug trafficking on criminals from Colombia, an analysis that fails…

COLOMBIA / 7 JUL 2011

After having announced, amid much fanfare, the record seizure of 12 tons of cocaine in May, Colombian authorities now admit…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.