Barely one out of every ten cases of reported oil theft in Mexico is presented before a judge, a striking figure that illustrates the role pervasive impunity has played in the recent growth of this lucrative criminal industry.
Between 2010 and 2015, Mexico's Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General de la República - PGR) opened nearly 12,000 pre-trial investigation cases for oil theft, reported Animal Político.
The annual number of incidents rose every year apart from 2015, for an overall increase of 409 percent over the five year period. While the PGR registered an average of 1.6 incidents per day in 2010, that number had gone up to 8 per day by 2015. (See graph below)
These investigations led to the arrest of 2,430 individuals, but only 1,410 suspects were brought before a judge, either because the others arrested were found innocent or because the PGR lacked sufficient evidence to build a case. As a result, at least 88.2 percent of pre-trial investigations were never brought before a judge, and the theft therefore went unpunished.
The PGR's data shows that Sinaloa registered the most reported incidents of oil theft with 1,508, followed by Guanajuato, the state of Mexico, Jalisco and Veracruz. Of the top five, only Veracruz is as a main oil producer, according to El Economista.
These crimes can have concrete consequences for the population living in the affected areas. Last year, eleven Mexican states faced gas shortages, which the state-owned oil company Pemex attributed mainly to oil thefts, according to Sin Embargo. One of the most populated cities in the country, Guadalajara, has repeatedly experienced pipeline outages that have last for several days.
InSight Crime Analysis
The high impunity rate, combined with the high profits derived from oil theft, ensures that this illicit activity will endure and continue to sap Pemex's coffers. There is little risk and high reward for criminal groups to take advantage of a criminal industry that brought in an estimated $1.2 billion in 2014.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft
But it appears it is not just Mexican oil thieves who are profiting. Pemex claims it lost $300 million from 23 US companies it accused of selling stolen oil. Five of the companies and an individual were ordered to reimburse Pemex $71 million, but not a single dollar was paid to the state-owned oil company due the culprits' lack of funds.
This year, the government increased considerably the maximum prison sentence that can be handed down for oil theft, making it equal to homicide. But as InSight Crime previously wrote, a higher risk of being punished for a crime serves as a much more powerful deterrent than simply increasing the severity of the punishment.
High levels of impunity remain a widespread and costly issue for a variety of crimes in Mexico. Recent reports indicated that less than 20 percent of money laundering investigations were ever presented before a judge, while one study earlier this year estimated that less than one percent of all crimes in Mexico lead to a conviction.