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The One Thing Standing Between Mexico and Fracking? Cartels

There's never been a better time to be an energy-thirsty crime syndicate.
Natural gas fracking station. Image: Shutterstock.

We know that Mexican organized crime has been getting into the oil business for years, and that business is booming. Swaths of Northern Mexico sit atop a vast, largely untapped shale reserve—at nearly 555 trillion cubic feet, Mexico's shale reserves are the sixth largest in the world, according to US EIA estimates. So it's not surprising to hear that in 2013 alone, Pemex, Mexico's state-run oil company, found the pipelines it runs through Tamaulipas state riddled with at least 539 illegal siphons.

But what we don't know is just how much of the impending energy boom—and attendant hydraulic fracking—in Mexico will be leeched, disrupted, or perhaps even outright hijacked by the cartels. Now that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nietro has ended the 75-year Pemex monopoly, opening the country's proven shale patches to foreign and private interests, he'll have to turn his attention to at least two gangs, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Both groups control overlapping turf across the country's shale patch.

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The worry, then, is that the mere threat of violence at the hands of the cartels will keep American drillers, like those behind the veritable fracking spree in neighboring Texas, away from Mexico's shale fields.

"Nabbings, extortion, murder and oil theft by the gangs have made US drillers—traditionally cavalier about violence in the areas where they work—wary of venturing into the shale-rich states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon," as Steve Levine reports over at Quartz.

That's not to say Mexican oil businesses are resting any easier as the flood gates open. In fact, they've maybe got even more to worry about; over the years, some of Mexico's larger energy endeavors forged between shale-heavy Texas and the Gulf of Mexico have beared the brunt of the cartel's extortion rackets. "Pemex, operating conventional fields in the region, has also suffered from theft, often assisted by oil workers in cahoots with the gangs," Levine adds.

As a result, Mexico's oil output has slipped 25 percent since 2004, according to the AP. And this despite increased investment and the fact that oil production to the north, in the US and Canada, has steadily risen. Nevertheless, energy talks took center stage on Wednesday, when leaders of the three NAFTA nations met in Mexico to discuss the ongoing economic cooperation as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, two decades on.

"Our goal right now is to help those companies figure out where their next opportunity is," US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said in anticipation of President Obama's visit to the NAFTA talks. Pritzker had brought 17 American corporations to Mexico to feel out what it would be like to set up shop to the south. "They know the Mexican government wants them there."

And who knows? The cartels could very well want them there too. There's never been a better time to be an energy-hungry crime syndicate, either way. Besides, it's not like some of the bigger cartels don't already have experience with high-tech, industrial-sized tools, or anything.

@thebanderson