The president of Mexico has recently declared victory over the country’s fuel thieves, and while authorities have made some progress, completely bringing oil barons to heel is going to be a long-term fight.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is celebrating a win over the country’s oil thieves, known locally as “huachicoleros,” just as the state-owned oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), announced last month that fuel theft had decreased dramatically by 95 percent from 81,000 barrels per day in November 2018 to just 2,000 per day as of April 21, according to a company press release.
However, just weeks after these claims on May 4, at least one member of Mexico’s Marines was killed and three others wounded in an armed battle with oil thieves near a Pemex refinery along the border between Hidalgo and Puebla states while authorities patrolled the area.
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Security forces aren’t the only ones at risk of being attacked by oil thieves. The number of Pemex workers attacked by organized crime groups at installations run by the oil company has jumped from just four in 2013 to 162 in 2018, El Informador reported.
In just the last two years, between 14 and 17 of every 100 workers dedicated to protecting the company’s oil pipelines have been assaulted by oil thieves.
In December 2018, López Obrador began cracking down on oil theft. He pledged to use alternative methods like tanker trucks to evade thieves and safely transport oil, while also deploying soldiers to protect strategic pipelines and shutting down a major pipeline at the Salamanca refinery in central Guanajuato state -- a hotspot for such criminal activity and related violence.
InSight Crime Analysis
The continued violence that security forces and those in charge of protecting Pemex’s prized oil pipelines face hints that it might be too early for President López Obrador to declare victory over fuel thieves just yet.
Such violence -- coupled with death threats launched against the president himself earlier this year -- indicates that criminal groups, while they may have temporarily slowed operations, are not going to abandon them completely.
“It has stopped for now, but they’re waiting for the moment to start again,” one vicar living in a central Mexican town dominated by oil theft before the government crackdown told The New York Times.
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While the numbers so far highlight that President López Obrador has indeed scored some advances in the fight against oil theft, the sky-high profits that come with siphoning fuel for the country’s increasingly diversified criminal groups suggests that this lull may not last for long.
Indeed, the billion-dollar industry rivals the profits such groups can make from the drug trade, and the risks are much lower given Mexico's domestic market for stolen fuel. Organized crime groups have already demonstrated a willingness to fight to the death for control of the illicit industry.