Oil theft gangs continue to be a dominant criminal force in central Mexico, despite numerous attempts to curb their power, as evidenced by a recent violent prison break in the state of Hidalgo.
In the early hours of December 1, a group attacked the Social Readaptation Center of Tula (Centro de Readaptacion Social – CERESO), ramming through the gates of the complex and setting off car bombs, Vice reported. Police officers were injured in an ensuing shootout.
The armed men forced guards to free nine inmates, including José Artemio Maldonado Mejía, alias “El Michoacano”, the leader of the Pueblos Unidos criminal organization, though there appears to be no connection between this gang and another group known as Pueblos Unidos, a community force in Michoacán.
Maldonado had been arrested in Mexico state just five days prior to the assault on charges of murder and kidnapping. According to media reports, his organization has spread its tentacles throughout six municipalities in Hidalgo, as well as localities within Queretaro and Michoacan.
The Pueblos Unidos of Hidalgo group is dedicated to huachicol (fuel theft) in the state of Hidalgo, though it has also been involved in kidnappings. The group is known to target pipelines from Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).
Curbing this practice has become a security priority for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador since 2018. The government has committed military resources towards providing security to Pemex pipelines and transport routes.
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This latest incident in Hidalgo points to the continued power of oil theft groups even amid the government's massive campaign to curb the practice. Despite some success nationwide in stopping huachicol, Hidalgo has seen the highest rates of oil theft in the country for three years running.
The Tula refinery in Hidalgo, one of only eight in the country, and its connected infrastructure and pipelines make for convenient targets for oil thieves. In the first three months of 2021, Hidalgo registered 1,151 illegal taps on oil facilities, or almost one every two hours, according to Proceso. Staff at the refinery were arrested earlier this year for taking part in oil theft rings.
Smaller gangs like Pueblos Unidos are often competing with the interests of Mexico's larger cartels, such as Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) or Zetas Vieja Escuela (Old School Zetas), which both reportedly engage in oil theft in Hidalgo.
Oil theft has also been at the heart of much of the recent conflict in central Mexico. One oil theft group, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (Cartel Santa Rosa de Lima - CSRL), was once a major force in the central state of Guanajuato. The CSRL enjoyed high-level connections with corrupt Pemex officials and control of strategic oil theft zones within the state, growing powerful enough to even challenge the CJNG.
However, ensuing battles between the two groups led to Guanajuato becoming the most murderous state in the country. While the CSRL has now largely been dismantled as a group, Guanajuato has not yet recovered and violence involving the likes of Pueblos Unidos is a constant risk for other parts of Mexico.