Violent battles between rival criminal groups vying for control over Mexico’s lucrative oil theft business left more than 50 people dead over the span of five days, highlighting the deadly consequences of the trade’s emergence as one of the country’s most prized illicit economies.

At least 54 individuals were killed as a result of violent confrontations between competing criminal groups over control of Mexico’s booming oil theft business in the central state of Guanajuato during a five-day period at the end of September, according to Mexico’s Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación – SEGOB), Excélsior reported.

The Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) is reportedly battling a group known as the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, which is led by José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” according to Excélsior. El Marro has apparently threatened to take control of oil theft activities in Guanajuato from the CJNG in the past, and Mexican authorities have identified him as one of the country’s principal oil thieves.

The latest uptick in violence is allegedly a direct result of federal security operations near a major oil refinery in the city of Salamanca just south of the capital Guanajuato city, sparking the deadly reaction from criminal groups, according to Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete Prida.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

“In Guanajuato, [violence] has worsened since we intervened at the Salamanca refinery about three months ago. All the trucks that leave the refinery are being checked and monitored. This means that the illicit product and the illicit possibilities have diminished, so [oil theft] is more coveted and becomes a reason for greater dispute,” Navarrete said.

Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the country’s state-owned oil company, has had a major refinery in Salamanca for more than 60 years. In September, members of the CJNG — Mexico’s most powerful crime group and a major player in oil theft — murdered a Pemex engineer from the Salamanca refinery. Federal authorities were investigating several of the refinery’s workers earlier this year for oil theft.

InSight Crime Analysis

Oil theft is booming in Mexico. Statistics released by Pemex earlier this year revealed that the oil company registered a record 9,509 incidents of oil theft in 2017, a 27 percent increase from the 6,873 incidents recorded in 2016. Oil theft is a billion dollar business due to the large market that exists for stolen fuel. It’s also far less dangerous than the drug trade as criminal groups don’t have to worry about trafficking the product across the border.

(Graphic courtesy of Reuters)

The so-called “Red Triangle,” a hotly disputed criminal corridor in the eastern part of central Puebla state that sits above an underground oil pipeline, has traditionally been at the heart of Mexico’s oil theft business and the scene of bloody battles between competing criminal groups like the CJNG and the Zetas over territorial control.

More recently, these battles have shifted into another oil theft paradise: Guanajuato. In 2017, the state recorded the most cases of illicit oil siphoning and it is believed to have had more organized crime-related homicides than any other state in Mexico. In just the first three months of 2018, homicides jumped 130 percent primarily due to disputes between rival oil theft groups, according to Guanajuato Attorney General Carlos Zamarripa, Televisa reported.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Before the Zetas lost their standing as one of Mexico’s most feared and violent criminal threats, the group was largely the dominant player controlling oil theft in the country. The CJNG has since seized considerable control of the theft of oil from the country’s prized reserves, which represent a “potential source of wealth far greater than illegal narcotics could ever yield,” according to a recent Rolling Stone report.

However, the CJNG has been recently rocked by a series of arrests and is battling another rival criminal group that is challenging their control on their home turf in Jalisco state’s capital city of Guadalajara. The group has been able to weather the storm so far, but it remains to be seen if the CJNG can remain in control of oil theft amid growing confrontation from the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel and other rival criminal groups.

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