An illegal fuel siphon on a Pemex pipeline

More than 2000 illegal valves placed on Mexico's oil pipelines are sucking vast quantities of fuel from the state oil company Pemex, and have spawned an illegal industry worth millions.

Figures obtained by El Universal through a freedom of information request paint an astonishing picture of the proliferation of fuel theft throughout Mexico. In 2013, Pemex discovered 2,614 illegal siphons on its pipelines transporting gasoline, diesel, crude oil, natural gas and petrochemicals, compared to the 155 discovered in 2000. The figure means there was on average one illegal siphon placed for every 14 kilometers of pipeline in 2013.

The problem has now spread across the country and siphons have been found in every single state where Pemex pipelines are present. It has grown most quickly in the states of Tamaulipas, which last year had 539 siphons compared to 8 in 2000, Veracruz, where siphons increased from 25 to 240, and Jalisco, which registered 7 in 2000, compared to 230 in 2013.

Between 2009 and 2013, Pemex reported 6,480 cases of fuel theft.

InSight Crime Analysis

Fuel theft in Mexico has evolved from a small time criminal activity carried out by robbery rings and corrupt Pemex distributors to a sophisticated operation linked to Mexico's main criminal groups. The figures obtained by El Universal underline just how prevalent and lucrative this trade has now become since it was taken on by organized crime.

The Zetas, which of Mexico's main criminal organizations have displayed the most interest in diversifying their criminal interests, are widely believed to be at the forefront of the move into fuel theft. The fact that the two states where fuel theft has grown most rapidly, Tamaulipas and Veracruz, are traditional Zetas strongholds suggests they have been one of the driving forces of the expansion in recent years.

However, fuel theft now affects every single Mexican state, showing that other groups are also capitalizing on this lucrative trade. While there have been indications that large cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel may also be involved, the practice is now so widespread it likely involves any number of criminal groups of varying sizes and levels of organization.

The only other country in the region that has witnessed fuel theft on such a grand scale is Colombia, which saw first guerrilla groups and later paramilitary organizations set up sophisticated and highly organized petrol theft operations.