Opinion: The Incredible Plunder of Mexico’s Black Gold

(The New York Times, Ioan Grillo, 26.Mar.2019) — In the first months of this year, the word “huachicolero” — once a rarely used term — has been on the lips of people all around the country. Car owners particularly have cursed it, but I’ve even heard schoolchildren shouting it. Etymologists debate the word’s origins and whether its root comes from a Mayan term for thief or a French word for watered-down paint. But today, it’s used almost solely to refer to people who steal gasoline, diesel and even some crude oil, usually directly from pipelines, so they can sell it. This has become an extremely lucrative illegal business in Mexico.

The term was brought to national attention by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has made a crackdown on these huachicoleros a cornerstone of his administration, which began in December. Soldiers have been securing pipelines, the police have raided the thieves’ mansions, and the authorities have recaptured tanks of stolen gasoline.

It’s been a messy operation. When Mr. López Obrador shut down some pipelines in January, to stop the huachicoleros stealing from them, it caused shortages of gasoline in swaths of the country. The fuel thieves have fought back against the police and soldiers, blocking roads with burning cars and ambushing convoys. In January, they hung a banner with a message threatening to kill innocent people if Mr. López Obrador didn’t end the offensive.

But he continued the battle, and it is a battle worth fighting. Mexico’s oil is publicly owned, so when the fuel is looted on a grand scale, it robs the state of money. The government oil monopoly, Pemex, said the huachicoleros took fuel worth 140 billion pesos, or roughly $7.4 billion dollars, over three years. The huachicoleros also contribute to the lawlessness that has seen Mexico’s murder rate rise and rise, with a record 33,300 or so homicides last year. And it is a catastrophic public health risk. When a crowd filled cans from a tapped pipeline in the town of Tlahuelilpan in January, a fireball exploded, burning many alive, leaving others hospitalized and struggling for their lives. The death toll for that disaster reportedly is now well over a hundred.

The fight against fuel theft is fundamentally different from the fight against the illegal drug trade. Trying to force people to stop producing, selling and taking drugs has proved a losing battle in most of the world. In contrast, most countries manage to stop their oil pipelines from being savaged with a basic rule of law.

The rise of huachicoleros in the last decade illustrates how Mexico’s rule of law has been shattered. And with that, democracy in much of the country has been under assault, with city mayors being controlled or attacked by criminals; journalists harassed and murdered; and community activists targeted. Fuel-theft gangs are suspected in various crimes against journalists, including the reporter Daniel Blancas being held at gunpoint in January.

I first heard the term huachicoleros back in 2011, when I went to the state of Puebla to write about them. I found it incredible when I saw a pipeline they had drilled two holes into, one to suck the gasoline out and one to pump water in to keep the pressure up. Former oil workers are often involved in these more sophisticated taps. I also saw a charred neighborhood back then, where a gasoline spill believed to be from a robbery caused a fire that tore through homes, killing as many as 30 people.

With some 700 similar taps detected across Mexico in 2010, I was amazed that the government was not clamping down. By 2018, the number had risen to over 14,000 in the course of the year.

It is especially telling that this criminal growth happened under President Enrique Peña Nieto. One of his major reforms was to open Mexico’s oil sector to foreign private investment, a move that was praised by the financial press, and one that he said would be a motor for the nation’s growth. But at the same time, Mr. Peña Nieto ruled over an incredible plundering of Mexico’s black gold and had no solid plan or political will to try and stop it.

Born in the oil-rich state of Tabasco, Mr. López Obrador is more cautious about the role of the foreign private sector, leading to criticism from some investors. Ratings agencies have also hit Mexico since he took power, including cutting the credit rating of Pemex. But unlike his predecessors, Mr. López Obrador is making a solid and sustained effort to stop the fuel from being stolen on a vast scale.

Of course, the fight against huachicoleros should not all be by the police. Targeted investment is needed in poor communities where people turn to crime amid a lack of opportunities. Focused social work can help steer teenagers from being recruited into the sprawling gangs.

But law enforcement is certainly a central part of it. Mexico is overwhelmed by high levels of criminal activity of many different kinds, and the police need to prioritize which offenses to go after. Fuel theft is one of those worth prioritizing, a crime that the government should be able to actually succeed in reducing. If Mr. López Obrador follows through with his crackdown, 2019 could be the first year in over a decade in which the number of illegal taps goes down instead of up.

Mr. Grillo is a contributing opinion writer.

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