Mexico Declares Victory Over Fuel Thieves. But Is It Lasting?
IRAPUATO, Mexico — Soon after taking office in December, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared war on fuel theft, an enduring scourge that had been costing the nation billions of dollars a year.
Thieves had launched a particularly damaging attack, draining 1.5 million gallons of gasoline through a single illegal tap over 10 hours and immediately elevating the issue to the top of the administration’s agenda. But targeting the fuel theft racket as his first major security initiative also appeared to be an astute political move by Mr. López Obrador.
Brought to power on a wave of populist anger that handed him a mandate to reshape the nation, Mr. López Obrador was eager to make good on his core promises: to tackle corruption and crime, and to reduce poverty and inequality by making the country’s sources of wealth work for all.
But he inherited, on Dec. 1, a lackluster economy and an unenviable security situation. Mexico was approaching the end of its deadliest year on record, with the criminal world more fragmented and complicated than ever, enabled in part by chronic government corruption.
Tackling fuel theft gave him a way to demonstrate action on several fronts at once. Criminal organizations, sometimes in collaboration with corrupt workers from the state-run oil company, Pemex, were siphoning gasoline and diesel fuel from pipelines and from within refineries and storage installations. The crime cost the federal government more than $3 billion last year alone, impeding efforts to resuscitate Pemex.
“By choosing fuel theft he gets a claim on fighting corruption and insecurity and can do stuff on energy that previous governments failed to do, helping Pemex to become the giant of yesteryear,” said Dwight Dyer, a risk consultant and former official in Mexico’s energy ministry. “So, it all sells very well politically.”
But while there are early indications the government made strides and scored points with voters, there seems to be little faith beyond the López Obrador administration that these gains will hold. It is a doubt fed by a chronic lack of confidence in the Mexican government’s ability — or willingness — to bring the nation’s increasingly sophisticated criminal groups to their knees.
The effort to curb fuel theft began in late December, when Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s security minister, deployed federal security forces to guard frequently attacked stretches of pipeline and Pemex installations where corrupt employees were suspected of abetting the fuel mafias.
Suspected thieves and their collaborators were arrested, bank accounts were frozen and property was seized.
Investigators discovered that the pipeline system was “full” of clandestine taps, the minister said in an interview. “We kept finding things and finding things,” he recalled.
The government even shut down the most heavily targeted pipelines, which caused shortages and long lines at service stations. Despite the disruption, the population remained overwhelmingly supportive of Mr. López Obrador — particularly after a punctured pipeline exploded in January in an impoverished area, killing more than 130 people who had gathered in hopes of getting free gasoline.
Less than four months after beginning the offensive, Mr. López Obrador said his administration had reduced fuel theft by 95 percent, and declared victory: “We managed to defeat the fuel thieves.”
Pemex reported that fuel theft fell to an average of 168,000 gallons per day in April, down from more than 3.4 million gallons when the president took office, generating savings of more than $600 million.
But many suspect the sharp and sudden decrease in fuel theft is temporary, and that the thieves are just biding their time until the government’s attention has shifted elsewhere.
“It has stopped for now,” said Roberto González, the vicar in a working-class Catholic parish in Irapuato, a central Mexican city where fuel theft was rampant until the federal crackdown. “But they’re waiting for the moment to start again.”
Fuel theft, known colloquially as “huachicoleo,” is a longstanding problem that had gotten dramatically worse in recent years as the enterprise shifted from being the domain of local gangs and entrepreneurs to a major industry dominated by the nation’s largest and most-organized criminal groups.
In the first 10 months of 2018, officials said, the authorities discovered more than 12,500 illegal taps on the nation’s pipelines. By November, thieves were stealing more than 3.4 million gallons a day. A decade ago, by comparison, thieves drilled only about 460 illegal taps, stealing fewer than 126,000 gallons a day.
The impact has been particularly profound for Irapuato and for its home state, Guanajuato, a center of Mexico’s automobile manufacturing industry.
In recent years the region has seen a sharp increase in violence, much of it related to the battle between criminal organizations for control of the stolen-fuel trade, officials say.
More than 2,600 intentional homicides were reported last year in Guanajuato, up from about 1,100 in 2017, according to government statistics.
Irapuato had been “very peaceful” until last year, its municipal president, Ricardo Ortiz Gutiérrez, said in an interview. But the bloodshed began in earnest during the first week of 2018.
The surge in violence landed Irapuato in sixth place on a list of the world’s most dangerous cities with more than 300,000 residents, according to the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, a nongovernmental group in Mexico.
The reaction from the criminal groups to the government offensive was immediate and robust.
In Guanajuato, they blockaded roads with burning vehicles to impede the movement of government security forces. A bomb was planted in a truck parked outside a major refinery in the city of Salamanca. The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, a local criminal group specializing in oil theft, issued a death threat against Mr. López Obrador, officials said.
And in March, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the local office of the federal attorney general in Irapuato after the arrest of suspected members of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, local news media reported.
“They are very cruel, very cruel,” said Mr. Ortiz Gutiérrez, the municipal president.
Many observers — here in the state of Guanajuato and elsewhere — believe that the fuel thieves will come back once the government establishes new security priorities and shifts its forces elsewhere.
“Organized crime is just waiting it out,” said Gonzalo Monroy, an energy consultant based in Mexico City.
Part of the challenge for the government will be to dissolve the local support that the fuel thieves have cultivated. Residents in some communities have found employment with the gangs and many more have been happy to pay the cut-rate prices for black-market fuel, which was often sold openly on the shoulders of highways and from the backs of trucks.
The gangs would shore up that support by handing out gifts to townspeople on special occasions, distributing food and paying for medical care and other community services.
“They threw big parties,” said Father González, the vicar of a parish in Aldama, a working-class neighborhood here where, until recently, fuel thieves operated openly.
The president has announced a plan to begin special social development programs in regions where fuel theft has flourished. And Mr. Durazo insists that he intends to keep up the pressure until the crime abates.
“The deployment isn’t going to end,” the security secretary vowed. “It’s totally sustainable, and we are going to sustain it for however long it’s necessary.”