After the discovery of several elaborate tunnels used to siphon fuel to two hidden warehouses, it is clear that Mexico's gas theft rings have found success by going underground.
Authorities discovered the warehouses, stacked with hundreds of plastic containers to stockpile stolen fuel, following reports in early April of a gas leak in Ecatepec de Morelos, a populous suburb north of Mexico City, La Jornada reported. The storage facilities also housed drilling machinery, metal tanks and hoses, Javier González del Villar, logistics coordinator for Mexico’s state-run oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), told reporters at a press conference.
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At least four more underground tunnels were later uncovered. The tunnels led to illegal taps in nearby fuel pipelines. The recent fuel leak was from a tap left open after one of the tunnels collapsed, forcing the people inside to flee.
A similar 50-meter tunnel was discovered in early April in Santa Catarina, in Nuevo León. Over the past year, authorities have seen an increase in the use of underground infrastructure to steal fuel, particularly in the states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Nuevo León and Puebla.
InSight Crime Analysis
While fuel theft rings have long looked for new ways to siphon gas from Mexico's pipelines, this underground operation is of unprecedented scale and sophistication.
González del Villar said during the press conference that the tunnels had electricity and ventilation and were shored with wooden boards and planks. He described them as "perfectly constructed."
Fuel thieves, known locally as "huachicoleros," have used high-tech tricks to evade detection. For example, the thieves have at times employed two taps to get around pressure gauges used to detect clandestine taps. One tap draws fuel, while the other injects water with the help of a compressor to avoid triggering alarms that monitor drops in pressure.
Such ploys may have been used by this underground ring. But it's unlikely that the massive amount of gasoline stolen -- enough to fill warehouses -- would have been possible without official corruption.
Beyond technical capabilities and infrastructure, the ring had to have sufficient funds and manpower to run the operation, which officials described as being on an "industrial scale." Logistics capabilities and connections to move the stolen gasoline would have also been required.
Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made combating fuel theft a top priority for his administration and he has been quick to tout a crackdown on gas thieves and better policing of pipelines. According to Pemex figures cited by La Jornada, the number of barrels stolen daily has dropped by about 80 percent since Lopez Obrador took office -- from 74,000 barrels in December of 2018 to just over 5,600 in December of last year.
López Obrador is right that the halcyon days of draining pipelines in broad daylight and visible illegal spigots have been, at least temporarily. But the discovery of the underground operation suggests sophisticated rings are undeterred and will continue to invent new techniques as long as enormous profits are still to be had.