Mexico Criminal Groups Running Sophisticated Distribution Networks for Stolen Oil

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The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have reportedly set up an extensive gasoline distribution system in north Mexico that rivals that of state oil company Pemex, as oil-theft trade becomes an ever more sophisticated and lucrative criminal activity.

In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, criminal groups, predominantly the warring Zetas and Gulf Cartel, now control up to 15 percent of the gasoline business, reported Milenio.

In the space of six years, criminal groups have graduated from selling stolen gasoline out of makeshift containers, to stealing and selling entire tankers — at a faster rate than oil companies can replace them, according to Milenio — and forcing gas station owners to sell their stolen fuel.

Criminal organizations are also likely behind an explosion in the number of gas stations, which has tripled in the state over the last six years even as Pemex has reported a sharp decline in gasoline sales due to illegal siphons. 

In 2013, Pemex detected 491 illegal siphons in Tamaulipas, a more than 180 percent increase from the previous year and the highest number of any state in Mexico. However, state authorities have only arrested 19 people in five years for oil theft.

Criminal groups sell their contraband gasoline at around 38 cents a liter, which is less than half the official selling price and a third of the cost of a liter of milk. This is enough to make the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel up to $268 million a year, which, according to Milenio, is more than the groups earn from kidnapping migrants and close to the amount made from illegal drug sales.

InSight Crime Analysis

Reports in Tamaulipas highlight the evolution and increasing sophistication of the stolen gasoline business, which has become a large scale criminal operation. Compared to other crimes oil-theft is easy to carry out, lucrative, and there is an extremely low risk of being caught, making it ideal for criminal groups following the pattern of diversification of interests and revenues.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

Criminal diversification may help explain why the state of Tamaulipas has become an oil-theft hotspot. The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, which are currently fighting over the state, are both severely weakened and fragmented forces and no longer have a unified national leadership. As a result, they are more likely to turn towards the local criminal economy as a source of income, rather than depending on activities like international drug trafficking, which require coordinated operations not just throughout Mexico but also all along transnational trafficking routes.

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