Posted Aug 30, 2016

Atmos has battled the theft of product from pipelines for almost 20 years. Our systems and engineers detect theft across the globe; a long list of diverse locations: Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It surprises many to discover that much of the fuel stolen in Latin America is put to an unexpected and ominous use; the production of cocaine.


Coca cultivation is distributed throughout the central and northern Andean Ridge, with approximately 60% in Peru, 30% in Bolivia and the remainder scattered throughout Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Panama. Cocaine production requires a large amount of water-immiscible organic solvent - a gasoline substitute. The criminals' process crude stolen from the pipelines in makeshift refineries. They heat it in tanks, known locally as Martians, or “marcianos” in Spanish. The Martian tanks, so-named because they often resemble the shape of flying saucers, are used to create a water-immiscible organic solvent (usually kerosene, less commonly diesel fuel or gasoline), that they pour over the coca leaves to make cocaine. It takes 74 gallons to 86 gallons of gasoline to process one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine.

192,000 barrels dumped

The estimate that these criminals only manage to use 38 percent of the product stolen is alarming, indicating that the remaining 62 percent is discarded in soil, rivers and green areas, among others. One report estimates that of product stolen from Ecopetrol alone in Colombia between 2015 and this year some 192,200 barrels have been dumped into the ecosystems. Ecopetrol SA’s 307 kilometers (191 miles) long, Transandino pipeline runs through an isolated, mountainous stretch of southern Colombia and crosses through provinces that, according to United Nations’ estimates, have the nation’s largest illegal plantations of coca leaves. Stealing the oil provides a free, limitless supply where the legal distribution of these fuels used in cocaine production is strictly supervised by counternarcotics forces.

Meridiano70 news website reported that between 2015 and April of 2016 three-hundred illegal theft valves were found in the Catatumbo region, mainly in the municipalities of Tibu (affecting the oil field of the same name) as well as in Teorema, El Carmen and El Tarra. According to the Ecopetrol accounts, this year they found 30 illegal theft valves used to steal 104,000 barrels of oil. Losses from the theft of crude oil total more than $10 million. An additional $9 million more was lost in repairing the pipelines and cleaning areas affected by the illegal pipeline taps for a total loss in excess of $19 million over the past 15 months.


Colombia has been cracking down since 2015. Meridiano70 reported in April that Police had destroyed 21 clandestine refineries and seized 53 Martians and about 226,000 gallons of stolen crude and fuel after beginning patrols in the second quarter of 2015 along part of Ecopetrol's Transandino pipeline.

These facts show the importance of pipeline product theft detection, every illicit tap we find means less product lost by the client, less damage to the environment and in the West puts a squeeze on the illegal drug trade.

By: Atmos International
Date: 11 October 2019