Mexico has taken down a criminal ring dedicated to stealing oil from its state petroleum monopoly Pemex, authorities said on Wednesday night, part of efforts to clamp down on out-of-control oil thefts that have grown exponentially in recent years during the country's drug war.
The federal attorney general’s office said five people were arrested in connection with a cell of oil thieves, after 14 search warrants were served in three regions of the country. Authorities seized ten properties, at least $20,000 dollars, and numerous tractors, trailers, firearms, luxury vehicles, and jewels.
Officials said the group operated in the states of Jalisco in western Mexico, Queretaro in central Mexico, and Mexico City. But authorities did not name those who were detained, or reveal any possible cartel links that the suspects might have.
The relative lack of information on the criminal group is perhaps a sign that Mexico is far from effectively tackling mass-scale oil thefts, even as Pemex appears poised to finally be opened up to direct private investment from foreign companies with controversial constitutional reforms set to go into effect.
In recent years, organized crime groups that were once focused more on trafficking drugs or people to the US have shifted their attention to the relatively easy racket of tapping state oil pipelines and then selling stolen oil or gas to consumers or rogue companies. The main cartel responsible for these illegal taps is the fearsome Zetas.
VICE News investigated the topic in its documentary, “Cocaine and Crude,” which reveals that illegal taps on Pemex pipelines skyrocketed by more than 1500 percent since 2000.
“They can [arrest] a few [of us], but there will always be others. As long as they move gas through tubes, this is going to continue,” a member of the Zetas cartel told VICE News in the documentary.
The problem of oil theft in Mexico can frequently turn deadly. In 2010, an illegal tap in the state of Puebla ignited, sparking a fire that destroyed some 115 homes and killed 30 people. Pemex estimates that it loses $5 billion a year in illegal taps, an issue the monopoly must confront, analysts say, as its operations are opened up to foreign investment.