Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Silent State: An Analysis of Hidalgo´s Huachicol Market

"Redlogarythm" for Borderland Beat

Graphics by HEARST, Edited by Huaso

Mexico has always been a wealthy country, containing vast reserves of oil, shale and natural gas, gold, silver, iron. These precious natural resources compose one of the American continent´s biggest reserves.

Mexico has oil reserves amounting to approximately 5,800 million barrels which have transformed the country into America´s biggest oil producer only after the US (Venezuela's industry, long ago destroyed by the Chavista administration surpasses Mexico in reserves but not in barrel production). They are located among six different basins all of which except for one are located in the mainland.

The history of the Mexican oil industry is long and complicated, with humble beginnings in the 19th century. In this period, the market was underdeveloped and subjected to the the will of the Porfiriato autocrats. In the beginning of the 20th century however, certain extraction concessions were granted to specific US companies. The post-revolutionary governments soon realized the potential of a market - oil - which could easily transform Mexico into a modern nation, rivaling with its northern neighbor.

The discontent of the US inter-war administrations regarding Mexican oil independence resulted in continuous political debate and constant threats of intervention. In 1938, President Lázaro Cárdenas - a nationalist and considerably capable statesman - intervened and nationalized the sector, which up until that point was monopolized by American companies. In order to achieve a self-sufficient oil industry the Cárdenas Administration created its own public company, called Petróleos Mexicanos or PEMEX, which since then has remained in control of extracting, refining, distributing and selling oil.

Although the Mexican oil sector managed to develop considerably well, PEMEX soon transformed itself into the Mexican elite´s private coffer. The consecutive Mexican administrations used the company´s managing boards as tools for granting perks and paying political favors. At the same time, a tight network of murky labor union organizations, all of them patronaged by the PRI regime, started growing inside PEMEX. 

These entities - political elites and labor unions - ravaged the company, and by the end of the 1980s, PEMEX was already losing much of its production potential due not only to nepotism and corruption but because of increasingly popular oil theft.

The first reports of organized oil theft can be traced back to the 1970s when politicians and labor leaders realized about the money that could be made by diverting resources from PEMEX. Thus, the stealing of gas and several oil derivatives in order to sell it in the black market started transforming Mexico into one of the world´s biggest illicit markets for ill-gotten natural resources.

In Mexico, oil production is a serial process. The oil is extracted through nearly 3,000 oil wells. From here, the crude oil is transferred to a total of six refineries where it is transformed into its final form, including gas, kerosene, or diesel. It is then pumped through a network of underground pipelines of nearly 17,696 kilometers (10995 miles) long to the Terminales de Almacenamiento y Distribución (Storaging and Distribution Facilities or TARs) from which the product is again pumped towards its final destination or directly taken to the distribution areas.

There are multiple ways through which fuel theft occurs. Sometimes it is obtained by stealing whole fleets of tanker trucks when they are covering their routes. On other occasions the oil is stolen directly from inside the storage facilities or refineries: a truck enters with forged documents and leaves the place with several tons of stolen cargo. But of all the techniques, the tapping of the pipelines accounts for most of the losses being reported.

This technique can adopt several forms. It can be as simple as drilling a hole into a pipeline, causing a massive leak of fuel than is then taken by crowds of civilians equipped with jugs. Sometimes it can involve the use of a bulldozer to dig through soil to reach the pipeline and install an extraction valve. This valve can be then used multiple times to steal fuel until the differences of pressure activate an alarm which situates the intake on a digital map monitored by authorities. 

Another method, the use of tunnels, has also become increasingly popular.

An example of a classical intake

Due to its underground structure that makes them almost impossible to be discovered, tunnels have replaced surface-huachicol as the most common method through which fuel is stolen from pipelines. This method of fuel theft has been covered by Borderland Beat in this previous article

Underground huachicol tunnel found in Gloria Mendiola colony. Monterrey, Nuevo León, April 2020

A huachicol tunnel is always located in a place near to an underground PEMEX pipeline. Normally they are located in urban outskirts, slums, industrial zones or working class districts. The tunnel is dug with a depth of several meters -2,3 and even 4 meters underground- and usually is equipped with wood and concrete coating, as well as electricity in the form of lightbulbs and air extracting machinery. 

Standard structure of an underground huachicol facility

Then, industrial hoses are layed along the tunnel and used to connect the pipeline with water tanks into which the stolen fuel is stored. The criminal networks operating these tunnels have learned how to avoid alerting authorities via the differences of pressure created inside the pipeline when absorbing its fluids. Thus, it is increasingly common to observe huachicol tunnels which involve the use of two and even three hoses. One is used to extract the fuel and the rest are used to pump pressurized water into the pipeline through the use of a pneumatic device or gasoline motor, thus offsetting the pressure loss.

The building of a criminal economy:

Since its beginning as an organized criminal activity, huachicol has transformed certain regions of Mexico into private fiefdoms where the stealing and re-selling of diesel and gas became a way of living for tens of thousands of families.

In the initial years of huachicol (1970s-late 1990s) the business was in the hands of political elites and labor union mafias. Over time however, individuals became involved from outside PEMEX, and started resembling criminal bosses without having to resort to too much to violence.

This was the case with the figure of Francisco Guízar Pavón aka Pancho. Born in the town of Copite in the municipality of Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, el Pancho Guízar started working for PEMEX in 1974 as a drilling assistant and soon joined the SNTPRM, the official PEMEX labor union. At some point in the 1980s or 1990s Guízar Pavón started stealing fuel and running his own commercial operations. In 1993 he was fired under the assumptions of overstaffing and stealing company property.

It is not known how he managed to expand so quickly, but by the 2000s he was managing a network of oil thieves operating in 13 of 32 Mexican states; Tabasco, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, Durango, Querétaro, Puebla, the State of Mexico, Veracruz, Coahuila, Guanajuato and, obviously, Hidalgo. 

Through these years, el Pancho Guízar built a powerful organization. By the late 2000s, this organization was operating in regions where it wouldn´t have been possible to manage the structures required by the huachicol industry without capturing the attention of violent organized crime, which by this time had already permeated the sector.

Francisco Guízar Pavón aka Pancho. On of Mexico´s early white-collar huachioleros

The beginning of organized crime penetration in the market for huachicol can be traced back to Tamaulipas and Veracruz in the mid 2000s. At this time the duo Gulf Cartel-Los Zetas (still a part of CDG) were expanding all around the country, bringing their operating strategy of reliance on taxing and controlling illicit economies as a source both of local power and easy revenues. Huachicol was no exception.

Being as he was operating in Tamaulipas, Veracruz and several other contested states; Jalisco, Sinaloa and Coahuila for example, el Pancho Guízar had to enter into dealings with the newcomers, and so did the thousands of small huachicol cells, who like Guízar´s, were operating in what had until then been a relatively peaceful market.

The consequences of violent organized crime involvement in the huachicol economy soon translated into the increasing competition for coopting market share, which increased homicidal violence. In a matter of years, the early huachicolero cells had to side with warring factions as a means to survive. From an early market operated by civilians linked to PEMEX corruption structures, organized crime transformed the oil theft groups into violent organizations using violence as a business strategy. Logically, violence and death ensued and what had traditionally been an activity denominated under the generic label of "white collar criminality" transformed itself into a race towards violent monopoly. The "guerra de los tubos" (war for the tubes), as it would become known, had begun.

In June 2010, el Pancho Guízar was detained in Monterrey by elements of the Federal Police. He was accused of leading a gang that had been captured in Jalisco on June the 9th in possession of 90,000 liters of stolen gas. He was linked at the time to the Familia Michoacana and Los Zetas, who were providing protection and support for the huachicolero leader.

It is not known where Pancho Guízar was jailed or under which circumstances he walked out as a free man. The next time he was referenced was on February 21, 2020. On this day, at approximately 7:45 a.m., a white van circulating through Lomas de Angelópolis -one of Puebla´s most luxurious neighborhoods- was attacked by an undetermined number of individuals who shot the driver between 8 and 10 times. The man at the wheel was Francisco Guízar Pavón. Thus, the career of one of the early huachicolero entrepreneurs ended violently by an unclear actor who decided thay either Pancho was useless as a partner, or a competitor who had to be eliminated.

Lomas de Angelópolis, Puebla, February 21st 2020. Francisco Guízar Pavón is shot to death in a carefully staged ambush

There had been previous signs of his demise though. On November 19, 2019, Juan Carlos Molina, a PRI local congressman for Veracruz and CNC union leader was gunned down inside his home in Medellín de Bravo. He was Guízar´s son-in-law. He had married Guízar´s daughter Rosa de Alba Guízar several years earlier and was regarded as a wealthy rancher, although after his death rumors started spreading about him being a huachicolero leader too.

In 2020 a mysterious Veracruz businessman accused of being a criminal leader known as "Compa Playa" was captured in Guanajuato and linked to the crime.

Juan Carlos Molina, Veracruz business man, local PRI Congressman and CNC union leader and his wife Rosa de Alba Guízar, Pancho Guízar´s daughter

Interestingly enough, the hotspot for huachicol violence at the end of the 2000s was Veracruz. Particularly its northern zone bordering with southern Tamaulipas and the area of Tierra Blanca, Pancho Guizar´s hometown. The so called "limpia" or cleaning of competitors has been a constant in Veracruz, often following the same pattern; a wealthy and relatively popular businessman is killed violently, local authorities claim that they´ll do everything possible to clarify his death, local newspapers report about the deceased´s links with the huachicol market, and finally it is publicly acknowledged that the individual was killed because a "pleito" or dispute between criminal groups. 

It happened with people like Pancho Guízar, Juan Carlos Molina or Rubén Rivera Canseco.

November 19th 2019, Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz. Juan Carlos Molina, Pancho Guízar´s son-in-law killed inside his own ranch

By the early 2010s, oil theft was covered more frequently in the press. Reports about intakes appearing at industrial levels in Veracruz, about murky dealings inside the Celaya refinery, the disappearance of whole cadres of PEMEX workers who vanished while performing inspections in Tamaulipas, filled headlines. Suddenly, the public eye started turning towards a market that had always existed, but covertly. Once one could buy cheap gas from a petrol station known to be owned by a powerful businessman or a corrupted PEMEX union leader. Now in order to acquire a few liters one had to talk with people wearing gold chains, silver necklaces, sunglasses and walkie-talkies.

Naturally, the first and most obvious sign of oil theft activity was the number of intakes being reported. In 2011 1,361 intakes were reported. By 2013 the number had surpassed 2,000, in 2016 they reached 6,000 and by 2018 more than 12,000 intakes were identified.

Number of illegal intakes being reported by PEMEX´s internal logistical services (2004-2018)

Hidalgo: the Mecca of huachicol

Until the present day, the State of Hidalgo was ignored by the press, overshadowed by events happening in states such as Tamaulipas, Michoacán, the State of México, Chihuahua or Sinaloa. This lack of attention had the effect of making states such as Hidalgo appear as peaceful and quiet in comparison.

There is some degree of truth in the allegations about Hidalgo being a considerably peaceful and stable state. Contrary to some of its neighbors, Hidalgo doesn´t present the rampant data of organized crime-linked homicides that have transformed places such as Michoacán, Colima or Guanajuato into low-intensity conflict zones. In 2021, the most recent year with published data from Mexico´s national statistical organization INEGI, in Hidalgo 287 people were killed. This number reflects a downward trend considering that violence reached its peak in 2019 when 479 people died in the State after a increasing trend that had traditionally meant more homicides per year. In 2010 there were 112 homicides reported, by 2014 210 and in 2018 2018 340 intentional killings were reported.

Hidalgo´s homicide rate. Source: Own elaboration with Inegi data

While Hidalgo´s homicide rate is low in comparison with some of its neighbors, it still is high and linked to the criminal market that has transformed the state into a criminal paradise: "huachicoleo".

With its 84 municipalities conforming 10 different regions, Hidalgo had by the end of 2020 a population of 3,082,841of which 50.2% (1,570,600) lived under the poverty line. The State has a considerably rate of unemployment of 2.345% according to INEGI data, although the average salary accounts only for 7,250 MXP ($397 USD).

Besides its human resources, Hidalgo is located in a strategic zone since it shares borders with some of Mexico´s biggest and most populated federative entities. On the east, it borders with Tlaxcala, Puebla and Veracruz, on the south with the State of Mexico, on the west with Querétaro and to the north lies San Luís Potosí. 

Any sharp observer will realize that Hidalgo shares borders with some of Mexico´s most disputed states regarding criminal markets. San Luís Potosí is currently being disputed by multiple groups, including factions of the Gulf Cartel, los Zetas and CJNG, Veracruz has been continually ravaged for two decades over the monopolies of migrant smuggling, weapons and drug trafficking and oil theft. In Puebla, remnants of the original Zetas structure confront local and foreign groups over the control of huachicol, drug retailing and transport theft. Finally, in the State of Mexico, several organizations are currently involved in a low intensity war for the control of extortion and the drug routes entering into Mexico City, the country´s biggest drug market. Thus, Hidalgo poses as a strategic point not only for its huachicol market but because it is a logistical knot connecting multiple states.

At least since 2007, Hidalgo has turned into an epicenter for the extraction, storage, and distribution of stolen oil. The state is home to one of Mexico´s six refineries. Inaugurated in 1976, it is located in Tula, in the heart of the region known as Valle del Mezquital (one of Hidalgo´s huachicol red zones), and its daily production exceeds 200,000 barrels. 

Pipeline insfrastructure across Mexico´s central States. On orange the Tuxpan-Azcapotzalco route, on pink the Tula-Toluca route and on purple the Tula-Salamanca route

The system of pipelines funneling fuel across the state crosses Hidalgo through the south. There are three different logistical routes through which PEMEX sends the fuel refined locally and in Veracruz: the Tuxpan-Azcapotzalco pipeline comes directly from the Lázaro Cárdenas refinery in Veracruz and enters into Hidalgo from the Southeast through the Tulancingo Valley and Comarca Minera regions. Then the Tula-Toluca pipeline connects Hidalgo´s PEMEX infrastructure with the State of Mexico (currently ravaged by several criminal organizations among which the Nueva Familia Michoacana of the Hurtado Olascoaga brothers poses as its most powerful group) Finally, the Tula-Salamanca pipeline connects the Valle del Mezquital region with Querétaro an Guanajuato.

Not surprisingly the forms adopted by illicit intakes being reported in Hidalgo when displayed in a map do fit with the structure of the pipeline system crossing the State.

Clandestine intakes reported in Hidalgo between 2008 and 2015

By 2018 the exploitation of the stolen fuel market had reached such levels that it turned Hidalgo into the paradigm of this illicit economy. Between January 2018 and June 2022 PEMEX reported 18,450 clandestine intakes in the State, all of which accounted for a total loss of 1,843 million MXP and the staggering amount of 12,147,860 barrels. Today, each hour and 38 minutes, an illicit intake is reported in the State.

Another particular phenomenon regarding Hidalgo´s huachicoleo networks is the increasing professionalization of the infrastructure used for stealing fuel, specially the use of underground facilities. 

The reports about huachicol tunnels have been continuous all over Mexico, but considering the fact that State authorities do affirm that Hidalgo´s criminality is nothing more than small groups not able to perform serious criminal activity it is strange to understand how such individuals have been able to perform tunnels such as the ones being found in Teocalco on March 3rd 2018, in Mineral de la Reforma on June 10th 2018 and January 4th 2023 or in the Colonia Águilas on March 8th 2023. 

One of the last oil theft tunnels -found on March 16th 2023 in the town of Teocalco- was particularly astonishing. With an legth of approximately 165 meters and at least 3 meters deep the tunnel was fitted with air ventilation, electricty and a considerably well built reinforcing system made of wood. 

Borderland Beat has been able to locate the exact place where the tunnel was built. It is located in the coordinates 20.093659, -99.288370 , was very recently built -it had no more than one year- and operated under the facade of a parking lot for trucks called El Pirul.

Site where the huachitunel was built, identified by Borderland Beat

Image of the video posted by public authorities of the site

Underground infrastructure of the Teocalco huachitunel

In the place authorities found 80,000 liters of stolen fuel, 12 tankers. 3 trucks, 1 45 mm handgun, marihuana, 80 doses of crystal meth and 30 pills identified as fentanyl, a remainder about how this initially oild theft organizations have penetrated the market of drug distribution. 11 individuals -ten men and a women- were detained on the spot all of them came from Puebla, Michoacán, Mexico City, the State of Mexico and Guanajuato.

But the most interesting thing about this tunnel is were it was built: just 4.000 meters from the Tula refinery. With an estimated capacity for stealing 420,000 liters of fuel per day the tunnel worked 24/7 in two shifts.

Aerial montage of the facility -although it was still not functional-. Observe on purple the pipeline going parallel to the place and how the tunnel was connected through 165 meters of excavation. The three red dots are previous intakes notified in 2009 and 2015 respectively, reamins of previous huachicoleo activity in the area

The effects of the oil theft market aren´t translated just in monumental losses for the public treasury. There are also human consequences. On January 18th 2019, at some point around 17:00 pm PEMEX was noticed that someone had made an opening into the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline in the 226 kilometre. The intake, of around 35 cms. wide, was so poorly performed that the amount of fuel coming out from the hole was badly calculated and very soon a waterfall of gas started pouring out. Hearing about the news of the intake hundreds of people from the neighboring town of Tlahuelilpan soon gathered around the area carrying plastic buckets, demijohns and simple bottles trying to catch a few liters. 

Tlahuelilpan. January 18th 2019. A crowd of locals gathers around a poorly performed illegal intake trying to recover some liters of gas

For more than two hours tens of thousands of liters of fuel flew out from the pipeline dipping the surroundings with gasoline vapour. PEMEX decided not to send personnel to bung up the intake since it was regarded as a minor incident. At some point in time between 18:58 and 19:00 pm something provoked a spark -it was later claimed that the friction of synthetic clothing being weared by locals was the main source of the following explosion- which ignited the fuel and enormous ball of fire bathed the surroundings, land and human beings. 

Dozens of corpses lie in the middle of a ball of fire, consequence of the explosion provoked by a sparkle

The images of people with their clothes and skin melted in a blackened tangle of flesh and smloking ragswent around the world. 137 people died as a consequence of huachicoleo in Tlahuelilpan, leaving a bumber of orphans estimated in 194 children.

People burned minutes after the explosion happened

A State with no organized crime where nothing happens

But who does perform such intakes? Who is behind the wave of theft that beginning in the 2000s has transformed Hidalgo into Mexico´s most lucrative market for huachicol?

Across the years Hidalgo has managed to go underreported. It is a considerably secure state in comparison with some of its neighbors among, where news covering organized crime are published on a daily basis. In Hidalgo, though, there seems to be little interest in local criminal organizations. According to the State´s Public Security Secretary Salvador Cruz Neri "there is no organized crime presence".

Not surprisingly, this is not true. Hidalgo is no exception to the rest of Mexican states. In Hidalgo there is a solid presence of several forms of organized crime, some new and some old, some powerful and some others small enough to be labelled as mere criminal associations rather than formal organizations. But there is organized crime acting in Hidalgo, and since a long time ago.

The first reports about serious criminal organizations operating in Hidalgo can be traced back to the mid 2000s. By this time only seven major criminal groups were operating in Mexico, the Gulf Cartel and its enforcer cell "Los Zetas" were two of them. Los Zetas were the spearhead with which Osiel Cárdenas Guillén tried to take control over much of the drug trafficking market.

In their push southward, Los Zetas arrived at Hidalgo where they became involved in the ravaging of illicit economies, absorbing them and institutionalizing some sort of criminal equilibrium. Obviously, huachicol was no exception. We should also remember that Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano aka "El Verdugo" was born in the town of Apán, Hidalgo, on December 25th 1974. He even built his own mausoleum in Pachuquilla´s cemetery.

The first reports of a Zeta regional Hidalgo boss can be traced back to June 2007 when Luís Reyes Enríquez aka El Rex or Z12 (one of the founding members of the original Osiel Cárdenas Zeta group) was captured in Atotonilco. At the time he was reported as the Zeta leader in charge of the region. Interestingly enough El Rex walked out of jail in 2015 and went on to become one of the leaders of Los Zetas Vieja Escuela (Zetas Old School), one of the several splinter groups that started operating after the last of the Treviño brothers (Óscar Omar Treviño Morales) was captured in 2015. 

Luís Reyes Enríquez aka "El Rex" or Z12. Original founding member of Los Zetas and one of the leaders of Los Zetas Vieja Escuela faction. He was killed in 2018 in Nuevo Laredo by orders of the Treviño Morales clan

El Rex would be captured just a year later, in August 2016  and was branded as one of the leaders of Zetas Vieja Escuela. He would end his days in Nuevo Laredo´s Center for the Execution of Sentences to which he was transferred on the November 17th 2018. 24 hours later, on the 18th, he was stabbed to death, presumably by orders of the Cartel del Noreste group. 

Luís Reyes Enríquez, El Rex or Z12, after he was stabbed to death by orders of the Treviño Morales clan in Nuevo Laredo. November 2018.

His remains were later stolen from a mortuory by members of the CDN sicario cells. They practiced oral sex with the body, chopped it and put make up on his head. Every single step was filmed. Finally, the remains were spreaded through Tamaulipas  inside plastic coolers in several towns of CDN territory with narcomantas threatening Zetas Vieja Escuela members.

El Rex´s body and the narcocartulinas left by Cartel del Noreste members with his remains

After El Rex, an individual identified as "Mascafierros" (Iron Chewer) was appointed as regional boss and managed businesses until getting killed in Pachuquilla in 2009 in a shootout against State Police.

A third Zeta leader, Raúl Lucio Hernández Lechoga aka "El Lucky", went on to be the next regional leader commanding Zeta operations in the States of Hidalgo, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, Tabasco, Campeche, Querétaro, San Luís Potosí, Quintana Roo and the State of Mexico. He was captured in December 2011.

Raúl Lucio Hernández Lechuga aka "El Lucky". He was the Zeta leader for western and central Mexico until December 2011.

The next highest ranking Zeta leader known to be in charge of the State was Humberto Canales Lazcano aka "Comandante Chivo", the cousin of Heriberto Lazcano himself. Borderland Beat has established that Humberto Canales Lazcano was appointed as regional Zeta leader in the State of Hidalgo to replace El Lucky after his demise in 2011. The truth is that by the time of Z3´s cousin was captured, in February 2012, los Zetas already had developed a considerable criminal presence in Hidalgo. They were charging extortion quotas to huachicoleros operating in the region of Valle del Mezquital, Mexico´s current huachicol hotspot, and at the same time using their classic tactics to coopt institutions.

In fact it was through the use of brutal intimidation methods as well as through bribes that Los Zetas managed to build a formidable network of corrupt police officers -mainly from different municipal police units-. In 2009 alone nearly 100 police officers would be detained and questioned by the now defunct PGR when their names were found in the payroll of a Zeta leader recently killed.

In red, Humberto Canales Lazcano aka "Comandante Chivo", Hidalgo´s Zeta regional leader from 2011 to 2012. Two of the individuals are "El Pariente" and "Comandante Teclas" since they were all were arrested at the same time in a meeting were Z3´s cousin was negotiating extortion quotas with local huachicoleros

On January 22, 2011, a car bomb exploded in the outskirts of Tula, a city in the Valle del Mezquital region, killing a police officer. The attack was carried out by the orders of Miguel Valdés Moreno, Zeta leader in the towns of Actopan, Tula, Tepeji and Mixquiahuala as an answer to a previous gunfight in which two sicarios had been killed by police officers. Valdés would be captured in Guanajuato in August 2015.

Tula, January 22nd 2011. A car rigged with explosives kills investigative police commander Víctor Peña Pérez when investigating a Volkswagen that had been reported as containing a dead body. The man ordering the attack, Miguel Valdés Moreno, was a zeta leader in the Valle del Mezquital. He would be captured in Guanajuato in 2015

It was also during the reign of Z3´s cousin that several Zeta leaders were linked to the city of Pachuca. In fact, Miguel Ariyacob López Aguilar aka "El Pariente" was cited as Comandante Chivo´s second in command with Pedro Alonso Salinas aka "Comandante Teclas" or "El Dandy" as Tula and Pachuca boss at different times. Antonio Hurtado Vera aka "El Chota" has also been mentioned as Comandante Teclas´ lieutenant. Interestingly enough El Chota was killed a few days ago, in March 2023, in Tulancingo, Hidalgo.

After Z3´s cousin was captured, Ciro González Pérez aka "El Puchini" or Z37 took control. He was the Zeta regional leader in San Luís Potosí, Guanajuato, northern Veracruz and was mentioned as leading a Zeta cell operating in the Valle del Mezquital region known as "Los Cotorros" specialized in oil theft. He would be detained in October 2015 in the city of Pachuca. After his arrest new conflicts would arise in El Puchini´s native Verazcruz between a loyal faction ("Los Puchinis") and a rival splinter group ("los 35Z")

Ciro González Pérez aka "El Puchini". Hidalgo Zeta regional boss from 2012 to 2015

Interestingly enough, while preparing this report it was reported that El Puchini had been killed in the same way El Rex had been previously terminated. He had been previously transferred to the Mengolí prison in Oaxaca, where he was liberated but apprehended again immediately for his connection with another case. He was transferred to the Nuevo Laredo prison on April 13th and entered into the facilities at 22:14 pm being immediately placed in isolation. Not even five hours later -at approximately 3:50 am of April 14th- he was a cadaver. Two individuals -Valentín Morale and Ernesto García- carrying three self-made knives and some meters of improvised rope made from bed sheets broke the window of the room where El Puchini was being kept and killed him by stabbing his body at least 60 times. Again, the Northeast Cartel poses as the main intelectual author. 

Two of Los Zetas original founders -both former GAFEs and followers of the initial Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano- had been killed in the Nuevo Laredo jail by orders of the succesors of their former leader and rival: Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales.

Across the years Los Zetas suffered a monumental prosecution on the behalf of the Calderón (2006-2012) and Peña Nieto (2012-2018) administrations. Contrary to other criminal organizations, which were either protected or tolerated by the Federal Government, Mexico´s authorities found in Los Zetas the perfect criminal scapegoat towards which the biased efforts of a corrupted security apparatus could be directed in order to convince the public opinion -national and internationally- about the seriousness and efficacy of the Federal Police in tackling organized crime.

Their incredible firepower, the greed of their leadership which translated into the monopoly over criminal economies and the viciousness of their violence which resulted into numerous massacres and horrendous tragedies -slaining of migrants in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, burning of businesses full of civilians in their turf-war over the monopoly of extortion and money laundering in Monterrey or wiping out entire villages in Coahuila- helped to position Los Zetas in the middle of an imaginary rethoric promoted by the Mexican and American Governments that managed to convince the public opinion about "el cártel de la letra" being the maximum danger for regional stability.

At least since 2010 -when the breakup with the Gulf Cartel was formalized publicly and violence skyrocketed- these efforts translated into the continuous erosion of Los Zetas´ leadership structure. Their leaders where effectively identified, prosecuted and indicted. Their sources of revenue -which had always been a widespread system of paramilitary extortion since their capacity to deal in drugs couldn´t be compared to other criminal structures- frozen. The killing or capture of their main three consecutive leaders -Heriberto Lazcano Z-3 in 2012, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales Z-40 and Óscar Omar Treviño Morales Z-42 in 2015- marked their demise as a monolithic entity. 

Los Zetas had a considerably short life as an independent criminal organization. It only took five years -from 2010 to 2015- to the Mexican Government to break the spine of the so-called "main cause for Mexico´s violent situation".

Consequently, the criminal empire that Los Zetas had operated all across Mexico´s northern, central, southern and Caribbean regions vaporized overnight. Suddenly, criminal cells which had been receiving constant orders from regional leaders found themselves as orphans. Their bosses had disappeared, but their sources of revenue hadn´t, and although several factions claiming to be following the original Zeta "cause" pervived -Cártel del Noreste, Zetas Vieja Escuela, Zetas Sangre Nueva, etc- the truth is that all over México tens of thousands of peopla continued operating criminal structures at a smaller level, but exploiting the same market niches: extortion, drug retaling and the sacking of natural resources.

Hidalgo found itself in that situation in 2015.

Hidalgo´s recent criminal panorama:

With the capture of Los Zetas last regional leader in Hidalgo -Ciro González Pérez"El Puchini" in October 2015 the huachicolero cells he had been overseeing ib the Valle del Mezquital region found themselves free to operate their own oil theft operation without having to pay a certain quota to no bigger organization. The most direct effect the absence of a criminal structure controling illicit economies through monopolistic tactics consisted on the atomization of the organized criminal panorama.

Dozens of small cells emerged everywhere. Integrated by former Zeta associates or newcomers. Bounded by family ties, mere friendship or convenience relationships. The truth is that Valle del Mezquital soon transformed itself in a very violent region considering the past levels of homicidal violence that had managed to maintain Hidalgo apart from most of the tragedy that by the mid 2010s had transformed certain Mexican States into de facto slaughterhouses.

In 2010 -the year of Los Zetas´ independence from the Gulf Cartel´s mentorship- Hidalgo reported 112 killings. By 2015 -the year of Los Zetas demise- the rate had scalated to 233. But by 2019, 4 years later, it had reached 470 homicides. By June 2021 - a year which would close with 287 violent deaths- 56% of the homicides were taking part in the Valle del Mezquital region.

The Tula-Salamanca -on the north- and the Tula-Toluca -on the south- pipelines transformed Valle del Mezquital into a war zone in which several huachicolero criminal organizations that have always been regarded by the State Government not as organized crime but as simple forms of small delinquency settled out differences with automatic weapons and organizing brilliantly staged oil theft operations involving underground infrastructure and the movilization of whole municipalities both to recover stolen fuel and attack security forces.

Borderland Beat has been able to identify at least ten different criminal organizations operating in the Valle del Mezquital regions at a certain point in time between 2019 and 2023. Some of them have been for nearly half a decade and have consolidated themselves in time. Some others have been disrupted either by the capture of their leaders or the numerous killings that began in January 2019 when, in the midst of the Tlahuelilpan tragedy, several high impact killings took place for unknown reasons reshaping the regional panorama.

Interestingly enough much of the native criminal organizations do operate in the Valle del Mezquital region, in Hidalgo´s Southwest. Here small, almost family-based groups that had already been under Los Zetas´ grip continued managing the huachicol business. Deeply rooted among the local population, these small but vicious groups kept on with the criminal market that has reshaped the State since the 2010s.

Thus, in the municipalities of Tula, Tepetitlán, Teocalco an other smaller local areas such as Benito Juárez, Santa Ana Ahuehuepan, San Francisco Bojay or Atotonilco de Tula the group of Saúl Hernández Martínez aka El Talachas extracted a ratio of 7,800 barrels of gas per day.

In the same area -specifically in the municipalities of San Gabriel, Anaya, Tepetitlán, Tezontepec de Aldama and Mixquiahuala- also operated the group of Julio César Zúñiga Cruz, also known as Héctor Baltazar Osorio Delgado or La Parka. A vicious criminal, La Parka started in the business of oil theft but soon got involved in the selling of crystal meth, combining two illicit activities -drug retailing and oil theft- that have currently become to inextricably linked markets for local criminals in Hidalgo.

Both groups -El Talacha´s and La Parka´s- soon engaged in a turf war that saw both leaders killed in parallel ambushes. La Parka was gunned down on January 19th 2019 and was suceeded by one of his former hechmen identified only by the alias of El Cholo -who still controls the group- while El Talachas was killed several months later, on May 5th.

Several other groups have been identified as active in the area. Thus, the group of Carlos Bárcenas Jiménez aka El Pelón or El Bárcenas is currently in control of 10 kilometers of pipelines in the areas of Sayula, San Mateo La Curva, Pedro María Anaya, San Pedro Nextlalpan, Encinillas, Las Antenas and La Loma; all of them in the municipality of Tepetitlán. El Bárcenas group has two associated cells -Los Pipas and Los Caguamos- who control the territory and serve as watchers or halcones.

Several other huachicolero local bosses have been identified as José Luís Estrada Martínez aka La Chita or El Gordo -in control of oil theft operations in Mixquiahuala, Actopan and Tetepongo-, Heriberto Contreras Rudiño aka El Jefe de Jefes or El Erick -operating in Tezontepec de Aldama- and Héctor Arturo Olivo Karapia aka El Geisha -in charge of the area of Cerro de la Cruz in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan-.

There are also similar small criminal groups operating in Hidalgo´s Southeast, particularly in the Tulancingo Valley region, particularly in the municipality of Cuautepec de Hinojosa. Here State authorities have mentioned Gabriel Rodríguez Hernández aka El Gabo, Cirilo Lira Gutiérrez aka Don Lupe and José Gerardo Olmedo Arista aka El Cochiloco -this last one was Cuautepec´s mayor between 2012 and 2016 and has been reported missing since December 16th 2022-.

There are also two other groups -the one of Héctor Armando Cardona Carrasco aka El Locutor and Jesús Ángel Sierra Cerrón aka El Jes- operating in Tulancingo and in the case of El Jes is has been reported that he has extended drug distribution operations to Pachuca and the Comarca Minera Region.

In the northeastern Huasteca region -a place bordering with southern San Luís Potosí and western Veracruz- there have been infiltrations of foreign groups -particularly former Zeta cells acting in Veracruz. But among the local criminal panorama it is Jesús Ángel Sierra Zerón aka El Jes who leads the most prolific organization, which uses the Zeta brand as a way of gaining notoriety. 

Interestingly enough, Jesús Ángel Sierra Zerón is a cousin of Tomás Zerón de Lucio, former head of the Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC) during Peña Nieto´s tenure and currently having an Interpol Red Notice for extradition purposes because of his role in the Ayotzinapa case being hidden in Israel from which he has conducted disinformation campaigns hiring social media bot networks.

It should be noted, though, that in the State of Hidalgo there is also presence of much serious and organized forms of violent criminality. Contrary to the official and public narrative, in Hidalgo there are criminal organizations that although come from outside the state have been responsible for high rates of violence.

That´s the case, for example of Pueblos Unidos, a criminal group operating in the municipality of Tepetitlán. The reader should be careful not to mix up this group with the one operating in Michoacán that is currently fighting a turf war against CJNG. In the case of Hidalgo, the criminal group known as Pueblos Unidos had its origins in the group known as Los Emes or Los Maras, leaded by a familyclan composed by de Maldonado Mejía brothers: Mariano aka El M1/El Gordo, José Artemio aka El Michoacano/El R/El Rabias, Lucio aka El Jabalí, Gerardo aka El Shrek, José Antonio aka El Pilo and the sisters Sara and Reyna.

The clan, acting by the name of Los Emes/Los Maras, was actively led by Mariano. Although there are rumours about the family being from Michoacán there is certain acquiescence about them coming from the town of Pachuca -the State capital- and by 2012 there are reports about the group being heavily involved in the business of kidnapping for ransom. At some point in time Los Emes/Los Maras went beyond state borders and started conducting operations not only in Hidalgo but also in Puebla, Mexico City, the State of Mexico and Baja California. In this last border State -particularly in the city of Mexicali- Los Emes/Los Maras became the most effective kidnapping ring, specialized in the express kidnapping of migrants. 

Their method was quick and easy: they first established contact with migrants in Mexican southern States wanting to cross to the US through intermediaries or "enganchadores" who managed to convince the victims into entering into the trunk of a car which would take them to Calexico. The cars were instead driven to isolated motels in Mexicali where women were systematically raped and men beaten before contacting their relatives demanding a ransom which ranging between 6,000 and 10,000 dollars.

Los Emes received considerable blows in the transition between 2015 and 2016. First, in October 2015, Lucio Maldonado Mejía aka El Jabalí was captured by the Subprocuraduría de Investigaciones Especiales and four months later, on January 23rd 2016 when his leader Mariano aka El M1/El Gordo was captured. The gang came then under the leadership of one of the sisters, Sara Maldonado Mejía, who apparently managed to stabilize the group which continued with its operations.

At some point the family moved again to the South, to Hidalgo. There they started operating from the community of La Loma, in the municipality of Tepetitlán, from which they started conducting oil theft operations and adopted the name of Pueblos Unidos -United Towns- as a new "nom de guerre". 

By 2021 Pueblos Unidos was labelled as a stable although minor criminal group. According to State authorities it´s presence in Hidalgo was minimal and their capacity severely limited to minor crimes. After the group posted a video on social media threatening a rival group on June 28th 2021 -check it here- Hidalgo´s public secretary of security, Mauricio Delmar Saavedra, took heat out of the issue claiming that the threat posed by the group was minimal: "those little groups aren´t big drug cartels. They are small cliques of individuals that like to disguise themselves as a way of scaring others (...) That one little group [Pueblos Unidos] it can be seen on social media that it is armed, but we should check even if their weapons are real (...) We have never denied that such groups exist, but they are regionally-based and some can even bring people from outside but they are no drug cartel. They are very small groups, very regional, from specific...colonies [neighborhoods] and they like to take these videos...with which they just make fool of themselves".

The video would be followed in less than two weeks by a second one in which several individuals appeared carrying assault rifles.

Extract of the first public video published by Pueblos Unidos on June 28th 2021

Extract of Pueblos Unidos´ second video, published probably around the first week of July 2021

Interestingly enough what had been labelled in July 2021 as a a minor clique of people that liked to disguise and take videos with fake weapons turned out to be a much more serious threat. By late 2021 three members of the Maldonado Mejía clan -Mariano aka El M1/El Gordo, José Artemio aka El Michoacano and José Antonio aka El Pilo- where imprisoned in the Tula Centro de Reinserción Social or CERESO (prison). José Artemio had been captured in November 26th in Texcoco de Mora, in the State of Mexico, but was immediately transferred to the Tula prison -a facility which by 2020 had reported and overpopulation of around 38.6%- where his already captive relatives had managed to build a corruption network that let them enjoy luxuries such as wearing jewelry and having access to mobile phones.

There are still fragmentary details of how the Maldonado Mejía clan did it, but the truth is that between Mariano, José Artemio and José Antonio a formidable escape plan was performed. It involved the hiring of foreign hitmen -which were recruited from the State of Mexico and Michoacan and paid in American dollars-, the purchase of grenade launchers, AR-15S and AK47s, the building of an handcrafted armoured truck and the manufacturing of four carbombs. Everything was planned from inside the Tula prison and the orders were given through mobile phones smuggled into the jail.

On December the 1st at 4 a.m., a gas tanker truck with a weight of 3.5 tons and its nose modified with an artisanal battering ram smashed itself against the gate of the Tula prison destroying it. At the same time, a car bomb which had been placed just next to the prison wall was detonated to distract the guards.

The modified truck used as battering ram against Tula´s prison gate

December 1st 2021, 4:00 am. The modified truck smashes through Tula´s prison gate

Almost immediately, two individuals with bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles jumped into the prison while five others covered them from the outside firing against one of the watch towers. From inside the prison nine individuals came out running -among them Mariano and José Artemio Maldonado Mejía-, got into waiting cars and dissapeared. At the same time several vehicles were set on fire all across the city and two more car bombs detonated while artisanal "ponchallantas" -steel nails welded together- were thrown into the roads to prevent any pursuit.

One of the car bombs detonated as a mean of covering the commando´s escape

In total the operation lasted approximately eight minutes. No one was killed.

In the end most of the escaped prisoners were captured again. After some months of hiding -it was rumoured in the mountain region of Michoacán- José Atemio Maldonado Mejía aka El Michoacano was captured in Mexico City were he was being hidden by his brother Gerardo aka El Shrek. Nevertheless, Mariano Maldonado Mejía still is at large.

It is remarkably curious that a group that had been defined by Hidalgo´s public security secretary in July as childish, nothing more than a neighborhood clique, had managed to organize just six months later -by December- an operation so well planned that it wouldn´t even be too difficult to see some parallelism with special forces maneouvres. But again, we must remember, in Hidalgo there´s no serious organized crime presence.

Another curious case of organized criminal serious presence in Hidalgo is the one of Los Hades.

Originally called Cártel de Palmillas or Nueva Empresa the group entered into Hidalgo from neighboring Querétaro and soon started operating in Huichapan, Napala, Tecozentle, Zimapán, Tasquillo, Ixmiquilpan, Alfajayucan and Chapatongo. 

The group in Querétaro was originally led by Pedro Fabián del Toro Patricio, who vanished from earth in Tijuana on November 26th 2021, and by his brother Leonel del Toro Patricio. But in Hidalgo, Los Hades´ first leader was identified as Biliulfo Garfías Arreola aka "El Tito", who was reportedly killed on April 28th 2019 after which some sort of split must have happened, because Borderland Beat has distinguished two different groups, one identified as Las Garfias -probably led by El Tito´s nephew Ulises García Garfias aka El Pollo and a second one led by Noe Rodríguez Hernández aka El Babas -captured on June 6th 2021- who controlled the Cardonal/Ixmiquilpan areas through a group known as Los Botitas and led by Adán Cerro Hernández.

In Hidalgo -specifically in the Valle del Mezquital region- Los Hades have been recently led by Salvador Reséndiz Hernández aka "El Rex" -captured on October 2021-and Orlando Medina Velázquez aka El Fénix who have conducted extensive drug distribution, kidnapping and oil theft activities.

Orlando Medina Velázquez aka El Fénix

Salvador Reséndiz Hernández aka El Rex

At some point in time El Rex and El Fénix broke apart and each one tried to seek the protection of bigger groups. The former tried to connect with the Familia Michoacana -which also has certain presence in eastern Hidalgo- and the latter with CJNG.

The reports about the current status of Los Hades are confusing but apparently El Fénix was killed in the city of Guadalajara -where he was under CJNG protection- in late 2022 while El Rex was substituted by his brother Monserrat Reséndiz Hernández who sealed an alliance with Los Alemanes -a Gulf Cartel splinter group- against CJNG brandishing the new name of Los Hades Segunda Generación (Los Hades Second Generation)

Los Hades have also had political godfathers on their payroll. It is the case of Pascual Chárrez Pedraza -former mayor of Ixmiquilpan- and Erick Marte Rivera Villanueva -former mayor of Zimapán- whose public security director Gustavo Trejo Trejo was convicted of kidnappin, murdering and mutilating a person in 2019.

Erick Marte Rivera Villanueva, former mayor of Zimapán

Pascual Chárrez Pedraza, former mayor of Ixmiquilpan

In conclusion, across the years Hidalgo has been labeled as a state free of organized crime presence. Borderland Beat has recounted how the State was deeply penetrated firstly by Los Zetas during the 2010s and later by a myriad of smaller but viciously violent groups that have managed to preserve a criminal market, the one of oil theft, which has transformed Hidalgo into a black hole.


  1. Excellent work fellas. That is a lot of detail information. You guys outdid yourselves. My , regards and gratitude for you guy in the utmost. Thank you for your work.

    1. Thanks for your kind remarks compa, highly appreciated

  2. first-rate work, comprehensive, NOT half-baked..
    Peel back the layers of the onion, write the truth, dot your i's and cross your t's, proofread your script with a fresh set of eyes, then get it out into the light..

    1. It’s an impressive work for sure my sincere appreciation for red logarithm. I read your worthwhile article on insight crime on extortion time ago. Pleased to learn you still write for borderland

  3. I imagine Pemex has some form of insurance for losses? Hrmm? 🦉

    Amazing article btw!

    1. Very good question. The answer is yes. Every two years the Mexican Government launches a contract for PEMEX insurance. I think it is Mapfre the entity currently holding the risk for PEMEX´s losses although the business used to be in the hands of Carlos Slim. Nevertheless the thing with these insurances is that they cover a fixed amount of losses. This means that if the activity of huachicoleros provokes losses above the quantity covered by the insurance PEMEX actually looses money. Besides, the management of the company has been so poor for the last two decades that the insurance companies holding the risk make sure two obtain optimal conditions that benefit them and not PEMEX.
      Thanks for your interest compa, always appreciated

  4. saludos desde pachuca, pachuca paraaa el mundoooo

    1. ¿Cómo están los máquinas o qué? Un saludo pa todos los morros y morras de Pachuca!!

  5. Interesting…Question for the author. I have heard that Mexico president amlo wished to eliminate the Huachicol in Guanajuato. Did amlo also fight the Hidalgos Huachicol leaders?

    1. Another good question. The fight against huachicolero leaders -who were mostly working for the Cartel Santa Rosa de Lima- began as back as January 2016 with Operativo Jabalí, which was a failure. Then with Operativo Golpe de Timón AMLO tried to restrain oil theft activity, managed to capture most CSRL leaders and huachicol certainly has diminshed in Guanajuato, although it still poses a considerable degree of activity. In the case of Hidalgo the answer is no, there hasn´t been a Federal effort in tackling the huachicol business because the State is regarded as secondary and without a relevant criminal presence, which is blatantly false. Hidalgo´s oil theft bosses dissapear when captured or killed, but there is not such a thing as a unified strategy against this criminal market

    2. My thanks for your answer

  6. why did Pemex stop updating fuel taps "tomas clandestinas" in 2018? how can we know how mnuch is stolen?

    1. They did so as a consquence of AMLO´s policy towards huachicol. When he got into the Gov in 2018 he situated oil theft as his top public security priority. The problem with tackling the market for huachicol is that it is a criminal economy by its own merits and has developed huge and deep infrastructures that predate from Mexico´s resources and their wiping is truly difficult. Thus, since the only way to estimate the size of the huachicol market is through the number of illegal inteakes being reported, by silencing this data AMLO has managed to create the feeling that the sector has been eliminated. In fact oil theft has decreased -in some parts of the country notably- but still poses a great threat for public security. I would say the only way to estimate how much is stolen is through the analysis of PEMEX´s internal revenue and losses reports publicized in their own corporate webpage. Those reports used to have a section for "operational losses" where illegal intakes and oil theft were included. If you wanted to calculate the amounts of intakes you had to do math magic estimating the cost of repairing an intake and dividing it by the total cost of the repairments. Idk if PEMEX still reports such expenses though...
      Hope you find this answer useful

  7. Damn that was a lot of work redlogarythm, detailed analysis. awesome job, thank you very much. This should be reprinted by newspapers or at least insightcrime….
    Keep on.

  8. This is a fantastic work Red. I thoroughly enjoyed the first read through and look forward to coming back. This goes a long way in providing coverage on a state that so sorely needs it.

    I have many thoughts about what you have unearthed here.

    1. Your chart on homicides in Hidalgo is interesting as it shows the state is worse off now under the influence of these ephemeral, nameless groups than the widely reported on and feared Zetas in the early 2010s.

    2. Both the methods of violence (IED, coordinated jailbreaks) as well as the sophisticated tunnels prove the government narrative that any organized crime being low-level, false.

    3. This fits in the context of organized crime in Mexico becoming more focused on domestic markets (fuel, local drug sales) rather than trafficking internationally. As this happens, states like Hidalgo, Guanajuato, will become more violent. The geography of crime changes.

    4. And wow - Pemex makes it pretty difficult to gauge what is going on.

    Excellent job. You should be very proud of yourself, as we all are of you.

    1. No compa, thanks to you for your advice and corrections. Without your help and Hearst´s graphics and constant recommendations this wouldn´t have been possible. Great team we make, como la hacemos compa, como la hacemos...


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