Gangs in Mexico are accused of stealing $236 million worth of fuel in the first four months of the year. Picture: AP
MEXICAN crime groups have virtually taken over the pipeline system of Mexico's state oil monopoly, stealing growing amounts of fuel and gaining an important source of new revenue as they fight other gangs and Mexico's government, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing Petroleos Mexicanos.
The problem is not new, but it is expanding at a rapid pace, as the crime groups learn technical expertise that can foil electronic monitoring systems. The rise in fuel thefts comes as the government struggles to contain an increase in violence linked to organized crime groups, which have expanded operations from traditional drug trafficking to kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets.
Since December 2006, more than 40,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico, most of it between rival gangs seeking to expand their territory, according to government and newspaper estimates.
The total amount of fuel, including crude oil and gasoline, diesel and liquefied petroleum gas taken during the first four months of the year is slightly greater than the total amount stolen all of last year, Petroleos Mexicanos CEO Juan Jose Suarez Coppel said this week.
During the first four months of this year, these groups stole an estimated $236 million worth of fuel at market prices, Suarez Coppel said. That translates to nearly one million barrels of fuel, according to Pemex, as it is known. Mexico relies on oil sales for about a third of its revenue.
"The increase in theft ... is due to the fact that the pipeline system has been virtually taken over by groups associated with organized crime," Pemex said on its website.
Unless Pemex can slow the thefts, the groups stand to make an estimated $706 million on stolen fuel this year. Pemex reported a first-quarter profit of $332 million.
Suspicion for the thefts has largely fallen on Los Zetas, a gang that has branched out to other types of organized crime and expanded its territorial control along swaths of Mexico's eastern Gulf Coast, the site of much of Pemex's operations.
President Felipe Calderon this week urged Mexican lawmakers to pass tougher laws against fuel thefts, while giving authorities greater power to prosecute by also focusing on buyers of the stolen fuel, which could be gasoline stations or factories that use diesel or bunker fuel, Suarez Coppel said.