By Dudley Althaus
Houston Chronicle Staff Writer
MEXICO CITY – The pilfering of Mexico’s petroleum wealth by criminal gangs and their cronies inside the energy industry continues to spike despite years of effort and many millions of dollars spent to curtail it.
Pemex, the Mexican government’s hydrocarbon monopoly, reports that theft of crude oil and petroleum products jumped some 18 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2011, totaling more than 1.8 million barrels worth.
The rising theft also comes as Pemex presses for a jury trial in U.S. federal court against a number of Houston-linked companies for either knowingly or unknowingly trading in stolen petroleum products that have found their way into the United States, and specifically Texas, since 2006.
“All this pilfering of oil and gas has become a public security problem,” said David Shields, a Mexico City energy industry analyst. “Something has to be done. They can’t go on long like this.”
Much of the theft in recent years has been coordinated by the Zetas, the criminal gang based along the South Texas border that is among Mexico’s largest and most violent. The Zetas are accused of stealing the condensate that ended up in Houston-area refineries from northeastern Mexico’s Burgos Basin natural gas field. Pemex alleges the stolen products pass through checkpoints via traffickers using forged export documents.
The theft, often abetted by Pemex employees, underscores the profound obstacles to achieving significant reforms in Mexico’s energy industry, some analysts say. President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto vowed to press for those reforms even before taking office Dec. 1.
Gasoline and diesel are increasingly favored by thieves. They market it to gasoline stations and roadside vendors across Mexico and export it to Honduras, Colombia and elsewhere.
Aided by a sophisticated measuring system that detects a drop in pipeline pressure, officials discovered nearly 800 illegal taps in the first six months of this year. In all of 2011, about 1,300 illegal taps were discovered, most in the energy-rich Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
But while the surveillance can shut down taps quickly, it’s powerless to stop new ones. And while an unknown amount of petroleum is drained from tapped lines, perhaps more is taken directly from refineries and transfer facilities with the aid of Pemex employees, said George Baker, a Houston-based expert on Mexico’s energy industry.
“You’re not siphoning off gasoline from a pipeline, you’re stealing it in broad daylight,” said Baker, who parses Pemex on his energia.com website. “That raises the question of how many holes are in the system from people looking the other way.”
Crime bosses captured
Mexican marines last December captured Zetas founder Raul Lucio “Lucky” Hernandez, who told investigators that rustling crude and refined petroleum had become a major source of income for the gang. He detailed the ways in which the gang tapped pipelines but also lined up Pemex employees for inside jobs.
The United States has requested Hernandez’s extradition to face organized crime charges.
Two weeks ago, the marines arrested an alleged Zetas boss who is believed to have been directing the petroleum theft operations. In recent months, they also have seized some 400,000 gallons of purloined diesel from Honduras-bound ships near the southern Gulf Coast. Trucks laden with hijacked petroleum routinely are seized by marines and soldiers.
For Shields, editor of Energia a Debate, a leading industry publication here, the rampant rustling offers a window on the corruption that permeates Pemex and the private companies that work with the petroleum monopoly. That, he argues, calls into question the ability to enact the sweeping reforms promised by Peña Nieto.
“Now that new reforms are talked about, a vital aspect will be a clear rendering of accounts and citizen participation in the oversight and decision making,” Shields wrote this week in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.
“Reforming the petroleum industry doesn’t only imply autonomy and investments, but in assuring legality, ethics and morality in all the country’s petroleum activities.”