Cartel Takedown Won’t Solve Mexico’s Oil Theft Problem

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Authorities in Mexico have cracked down on the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, touted as the nation’s leading oil theft gang, but this vast criminal economy will not be undone by scapegoating one crime group.

Since March 2019, Mexico’s financial intelligence unit has frozen 35 million pesos (around $1.8 million) in bank accounts associated with a Guanajuato-based oil theft gang known as the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and its leader, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro.” Meanwhile, police in the central state of Guanajuato, where the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel operates, have arrested or killed 62 suspected cartel collaborators and seized 14 properties, 129 vehicles and a wide array of weaponry, Milenio reported.

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The targeting of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has been a key strategy of the war on oil theft, which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has made his top national security priority since taking office in December 2018.

Oil theft has cost the Mexican economy billions of dollars, according to Reuters. Guanajuato is a hotspot for this lucrative criminal economy, and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel’s dominance of oil theft there has led to it rapidly establishing itself as a major criminal player since the cartel’s emergence in 2017.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel’s leader, Yépez Ortiz, remains on the loose, bringing down the gang is a coup for López Obrador. It represents a tangible victory in his fight against oil thieves, known locally as “huachicoleros,” and shows his ability to stand up to criminal groups who defy him. Nevertheless, this is unlikely to have any real impact on oil theft overall.

Firstly, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel’s operations are highly localized in Guanajuato, whereas oil theft in Mexico is a national problem. During the first half of 2019, Guanajuato tallied 629 illegal taps, the fifth most out of any state in Mexico, according to data from Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the country’s state-owned oil company. The leading state, Hidalgo, registered 2,170 taps. Guanajuato’s low figure may reflect authorities’ targeting of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, but the state is part of a much broader picture.

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Secondly, the amount of oil stolen nationwide has plummeted under López Obrador’s crackdown, but the number of taps has risen slightly. Inevitably, when authorities hit one area, taps reappear in nearby towns or neighboring states. In early 2019, for example, oil taps were down 17 percent in Guanajuato due to police operations. But the number of taps in nearby Hidalgo, where the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has also operated, increased by 182 percent.

Thirdly, the blow to the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel represents an opportunity for other criminal groups.The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) also has a strong presence in Guanajuato, and it is much more sophisticated and dangerous than the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, which arose as a defense against the CJNG’s incursions into the state. The CJNG is well-positioned to capitalize on the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel’s demise in its efforts to control oil theft.

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