Fuel theft in Mexico used to consist of a few villagers drilling holes in Pemex pipelines and carrying away just enough gasoline to fill their vehicles and maybe a couple extra gallons to sell on the side of the freeway. But as The Columbian notes, illegally tapping into pipelines and stealing gas from Mexico's state-owned oil company has morphed into a very well organized criminal enterprise, run by well-armed regional cartels and supported by distribution on a commercial scale to factories and petrol stations.
Heavy arms and violence seen in Tuesday’s confrontation in Puebla state reflect its growth into a billion-dollar business that supplies not just the people selling gas on the sides of highways — called “huachicoleros” — but factories and gasoline station chains.
It has become an industrial-scale operation, involving a string of villages and hamlets along pipeline routes, not just in Puebla, but in Guanajuato, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and other Mexican states. The government says more than 6,000 illegal pipeline taps were found in 2016 and officials have been detecting an average of about 20 taps a day this year.
“Of all the fuel that is stolen, only 10 percent is sold to the public” by roadside vendors, said Jesus Morales, the top police official in Puebla state. “The other 90 percent goes to big business groups, to gas stations, factories.”
Meanwhile, the collection and distribution of stolen fuel has become every bit as barbaric as the drug trade with local villagers being given quotas by organized cartels and then suffering brutal consequences when those quotas aren't met.
As the stakes have risen, fuel theft has become a blood industry.
In early July, nine people were killed, including five men whose bodies were burned, in a dispute between fuel thieves in the town of Huehuetlan in Puebla state. Morales said the killings involved a gang of distributors trying to collect from local vendors who were unable to meet their sales quotas because of police raids.
“They committed this barbarous act as a gesture of anger,” said Morales, who claimed that vendors have recently raised the price of stolen fuel to near that of legitimate gasoline — it used to be half as much — because their supplies are being cut off.
As the police officers waited near the cornfield in Puebla, they saw a huge column of smoke rise into the sky after a clandestine warehouse of stolen fuel went up in flames about two miles down the road.
Authorities couldn’t go into the area to fight the blaze because they risked a confrontation with villagers.
“They don’t even let the fire department enter,” Assistant Public Safety Secretary Jose Tlachi said. “They usually try to put the fires out themselves.”
Pemex workers and local villagers paint a surreal scene of the carnage left in the wake of this relatively nascent criminal enterprise which includes 1,000's of abandoned "Max Max-style" vehicles and gasoline literally flooding entire fields after pipeline taps are drilled and then simply abandoned once tanks have been filled.
A former soldier carrying an AR-15 and extra clips who was patrolling the pipeline for Pemex said the police officers had earlier been attacked by three armored trucks, explaining their reluctance to confront the thieves a second time.
“You can tell they are armored by the weight of the vehicles. They are better-armed than we are,” he said.
The battle against the fuel thieves has left a strange “huachicolero” landscape east of Mexico City. Fields are littered with leaking illegal taps, abandoned fuel tanks and Mad Max-style vehicles whose interiors have been ripped out to hold thousand-liter tanks. Fires from stolen fuel are common.
The vehicles the gangs use are usually stolen and abandoned after a few trips. Over 1,700 of such vehicles have been seized in the last two months.
Meanwhile, just like with the drug cartels, local police forces are finding themselves outgunned by the thieves who have the benefit of better weapons and armored vehicles.
The police officers gripped their assault rifles tightly as they stared at the men filling plastic tanks and loading them onto a dozen pickup trucks in a cornfield in central Mexico. Even though a crime was being committed in front of them, the officers said it was too dangerous to move in.
They had to wait until the army arrived to advance because the suspects were better-armed than they were and an earlier attempt to arrest them had been repelled by gunfire, officials said.
“In the morning there were 40 trucks loading,” said Francisco, a security employee with the state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, who asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons. “We saw them loading, we went in, and they started shooting at us. The criminals had an armored car.”
Of course, gas thieving skyrocketed in Mexico earlier this year after President Pena Nieto decided to remove federal subsidies and hike prices a little over 20%, a move intended to offset budget deficits. In hindsight, the price hike has cost the state-owned oil company, Pemex, at least $1 billion worth of stolen fuel and launched a brand new cartel war...probably not the expected outcome.