Oil theft cases in Costa have hit record levels in 2019 and increased nearly six fold in the past three years — evidence that the fuel theft racket has grown dramatically in the Central American country.
Figures from the Costa Rican Petroleum Refinery (Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo – RECOPE) show that more than 14 billion liters of gas has been stolen between October 2016 and July 2019, CRHoy reported.
In October, RECOPE officials said that 279 separate oil theft incidents had been reported in 2019, a jump from 200 cases all of last year. In 2017, 47 cases were tallied, and just three cases were reported in 2016.
Officials at RECOPE estimate losses at almost $13 million during this period.
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The pipeline between the inland hub of Cartago and the Atlantic port of Limón has been regularly targeted, officials say. Authorities, however, have been unable to pinpoint the time of the attacks or the exact amount of gasoline being stolen. Other sites where thefts have occurred include La Garita, Barranca, Esparza and places along Route 27.
In September, Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) opened an investigation after a large hole was found in a pipeline in Moravia, just north of San José.
The oil theft gangs have also found more sophisticated ways to siphon off fuel. Whereas boreholes were once crudely made and the gasoline carried away by hand, authorities are now seeing gaping holes that allow for the gasoline to be pumped out with small high-pressure hoses up to 500 meters long. In June, two men were arrested in Cartago driving a truck packed with 16 tanks, each of which had been filled with 1,000 liters of gasoline stolen from RECOPE pipelines, according to CRHoy.
Costa Rica’s intelligence agency (Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad – DIS) found that experts needed to perform taps are paid up to 3 million colons (about $5,000).
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The rapid scaling up of fuel theft reveals how Costa Rica’s gangs have seized on the quick and relatively risk-free criminal economy as a way to finance their expanding operations.
This has triggered a response from RECOPE, which has spent over $850,000 on security upgrades between the past year and doubled the number of guards patrolling its pipelines.
So far, the police response has largely been ineffective, most often resulting in just the capture of young men who carry out the thefts.
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And while oil theft has been increasing, it may not be high atop authorities’ list of priorities. Costa Rica has seen a spike in violence, drug trafficking and human smuggling in 2019.
Other countries in the region have also seen crime groups exploit the lucrative oil theft trade. In January of 2019, the state-run oil firm in Mexico estimated that more than $7 billion worth of fuel had been stolen since 2016. In Honduras, some 50,000 liters of stolen fuel were seized during a February 2019 operation.