Stopping Oil Theft in Mexico Futile Game of Whac-a-Mole

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A rise in the number oil thefts this year in Mexico has provided further evidence that this high-profile criminal economy may be too massive for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s to fully deal with.

Between January and May, Mexico saw 6,621 instances of oil theft nationwide, according to new data from state oil company, Pemex. This marked a slight 1.6 percent rise, or 91 more thefts than the 6,530 registered over the same period in 2018.

In the first five months of the year, the states with the most illegal taps of oil pipelines were Hidalgo with 2,170 thefts, followed by the State of Mexico (923), Puebla (677), Tamaulipas (673), and Guanajuato (629).

The quantities of gasoline stolen, however, are vastly lower than during the first five months of 2018, with Pemex estimating the total volume has dropped by as much as 93 percent.

The report also showed that focusing on eradicating oil theft in one particular area may have little overall impact since thefts will spike somewhere else.

A large part of the Mexican campaign against oil theft has been focused on the state of Guanajuato, particularly against the Cartel de Santa Rosa de Lima, who are experts in this criminal economy.

SEE ALSO: Early Gains Cloud Need for Long-Term Approach for Mexico’s Oil Thieves

While this campaign has brought the amount of oil thefts down by 17 percent this year in Guanajuato, thefts spiked by 182 percent in Hidalgo.

And for certain states where oil theft was a rare occurrence, numbers have jumped, with Chiapas going from two thefts in early 2018 to 14 this year.

InSight Crime Analysis

In one important dynamic, President López Obrador is correct: The amount of gasoline pilfered from Mexico’s pipelines has plummeted since he took office. A militarized presence around refineries, targeting specialized criminal groups and choosing to move some oil supplies with tanker trucks have helped.

But at what cost?

The ongoing war against the Cartel de Santa Rosa de Lima in Guanajuato has allegedly led to the arrests of around 50 percent of the group’s members. But this has only worsened a spiral of violence that has led the murder rate in Guanajuato — an important industrial and tourism state — to climb by 400 percent in four years.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

The Cartel de Santa Rosa de Lima, arguably Mexico’s most prominent criminal group dedicated to oil theft, may soon be brought down. It lacks the size and criminal diversity of its larger rivals.

However, as Pemex’s report shows, this prolonged campaign by the government against oil thieves lacks staying power. While it is a steady means of profit for criminal groups, tapping into a pipeline is also an opportunity for poorer communities to stock up on gasoline.

The Hidalgo pipeline explosion last January, which left 137 people dead, happened after hundreds of local residents descended on the site.

The Pemex figures show just how oil theft will survive and spread, popping up in new areas when existing accesses are closed. Stopping criminal groups is one thing. Addressing the socio-economic conditions that lead thousands of ordinary Mexicans to resort to oil theft across the country is quite another.

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