El Universal’s Monday number-crunching feature is a pretty good primer on a crime that didn’t used to seem as serious as it’s turned out to be— fuel theft. Enterprising criminals have developed methods to tap into pipelines to “milk” significant amounts of gasoline and carry it off in tank trucks. The El U lead headline: “Gasoline siphoning taking off in the country.”
In the first two full years of the Peña Nieto administration (2013-2014), El Universal reports, using numbers obtained from Pemex, the parastate oil company, there have been 5,962 “takings” — thefts from the pipeline — compared to 4,865 during the entire previous six-year administration.
That skyrocketing figure may not reflect any special shortcoming on the part of the Peña Nieto team, though of course a lot of people will say that it does. It may simply mean that criminals, including drug-trafficking organizations, have learned to exploit some lucrative and fairly easy pickings.
El Universal cites instances where the thieves simply pump or ladle the gasoline out of cisterns along the transportation routes. The most common modus operandi, however, seems to be finding a stretch of pipeline in a deserted area, digging enough to expose a segment, poking a hole in it and sucking out the merchandise. Mexican newspapers call this process “milking” or ordeñar.
The gasoline is taken away in tank trucks and sold to gas stations, including, according to some reports, on the other side of the border. Or the stolen fuel is fenced to makeshift roadside dispensers, whose cut-rate prices are irresistible to plenty of drivers, many of whom are loud complainers about the crime rate in Mexico.
Most reports about fuel thefts talk about individual “takings” more than the amount of gasoline taken. That’s probably because the discrete thefts are easier to count. Presumably, almost all the individual theft sites are eventually discovered, though of course usually too late.
But El Universal was able to quote a Pemex assistant director as saying that the thefts cost the company 19.4 billion pesos last year, or about $1.3 billion dollars.
The El Universal article focuses on gasoline theft, but that’s not the only petroleum product pilfered from pipelines. Crude oil and liquid gas are also transported via pipeline for long distances, and the crooks take their share.
The article acknowledges that most of the fuel theft is the work of organized crime, but seems to downplay the participation of drug-trafficking gangs. That's debatable. A recent report in the online site Animal Político pointed out that a third of the known “takings” sites have been discovered in states that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel — the gang that shot down an army helicopter and set much of Jalisco afire on May 1 — either controls or has an influence in.
One of New Generation’s several recent ambushes of army soldiers, that of May 2014, was thought to be aimed at keeping soldiers away from clandestine pipeline theft sites.
Whoever’s doing the stealing, they’re clearly doing it in cooperation with Pemex personnel. El Universal, as have many others, quotes energy experts as saying that the thefts simply couldn’t happen without the expertise and collaboration of knowledgeable insiders.
Pemex is starting to fight back by implementing sensors to detect escaping fuel, and by planning a program to transport gasoline and diesel “unfinished” — that is, missing an ingredient that will be added onsite at the destination. “Unfinished” gasoline is worthless, they say.
Another preventive measure not talked about might be speeding up the transition to renewable, non-carbon-based energy sources. Then there’d be no pipelines to steal from.