Mexico Fuel Theft: Big Earner for the Zetas?

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An on-the-ground news report has exposed the industrial scale of fuel theft in Mexico, where around 10,000 barrels are stolen from state-owned oil company Pemex each day, in a trade driven principally by the Zetas cartel.

According to VICE News, Pemex loses around $5 billion in profits each year from the theft of crude oil, and the number of illegal taps discovered in company pipelines has risen 1,548 percent since the year 2000.  

VICE staff accompanied Mexican soldiers as they attempted to seal one such breach in the city of Reynosa in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, a Zetas stronghold where the trade thrives. Mexico cartel researcher George W. Grayson told the media outlet the Zetas rely heavily on threats to force Pemex staff to cooperate. Over 50 Pemex employees have been kidnapped in the past decade, reported VICE. 

In addition to tapping pipelines, Zetas members sometimes directly enter the company’s facilities with oil tankers and drain the large holding tanks on the premises, one Pemex worker said.

One Zetas member who spoke with VICE on the condition of anonymity said the theft of 10,000 liters of crude from one pipe represented profits of about $4,600, and that the drilling of a pipeline took just around half an hour. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The profits on offer from the trade in stolen fuel are tantalizing for Mexico’s cartels, who have gradually diversified their income streams as the old drug trafficking empires have fragmented and the competition over drug revenues has increased. While fuel theft used to be carried out largely by small-time thieves and corrupt Pemex employees, it has evolved into a massive business for drug groups, and the Zetas are the most heavily involved in this illicit activity.

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile

The costs and security dilemma for Mexico’s government are clear — going off of VICE’s estimates, losses from oil theft have quintupled just since 2011, when the government reported it was losing $1 billion a year in oil revenue from the crime. In 2013, Pemex discovered 2,614 illegal siphons on its numerous fuel pipelines throughout the country. 

For Mexico’s criminal organizations, fuel theft is also logistically easier to coordinate than transnational drug trafficking. Stolen fuel is difficult to track and easy to commercialize — it is allegedly sold everywhere from the side of highways to formal Pemex gas stations, and authorities believe at least some of the illicit fuel is making its way into the US. In 2011, Pemex sued several US companies for allegedly buying stolen fuel. 

Fuel theft has also been an important source of financing for illegal groups in Colombia, and stolen fuel there is often used in cocaine production

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