Armed gangs stealing from gasoline pipelines in Mexico are getting more dangerous. Police intervention is frequently not enough, with the Mexican Army being called in to deal with thieves who attack pipelines in armored vehicles and carry automatic weapons.

Fuel theft from Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) is a form of organized crime that is growing and has led to a series of deadly encounters. It has become an industrial-scale operation, involving the villages along pipeline routes. The government says more than 6,000 illegal pipeline taps were found in 2016, and officials have been detecting an average of about 20 taps a day so far in 2017. It’s estimated that fuel theft cost the Mexican government about 1 billion USD per year.

"Of all the fuel that is stolen, only 10 percent is sold to the public" by roadside vendors, said Jesus Morales, the top police official in Puebla state, "the other 90 percent goes to big business groups, to gas stations, factories".

The fuel theft gangs often have the support of corrupt local officials and the residents of towns that rely on the income from pipeline tapping. Two mayors have been arrested for involvement in the trade. In early July 2017, nine people were killed, including five men whose bodies were burned, in a dispute between fuel thieves in the town of Huehuetlan in Puebla state. Morales said the killings involved a gang of distributors trying to collect from local vendors who were unable to meet their sales quotas because of police raids.

"They committed this barbarous act as a gesture of anger," said Morales, who claimed that vendors have recently raised the price of stolen fuel to near that of legitimate gasoline (it used to be half as much) because their supplies are being cut off.

Fields are littered with leaking illegal taps, abandoned fuel tanks and modified vehicles whose interiors have been ripped out to hold thousand-liter tanks. The vehicles the gangs use are usually stolen and abandoned after a few trips. Over 1,700 of such vehicles have been seized in the last two months. Fires from stolen fuel are common.

Arrests are rarely made because when police move in the thieves run and abandon the trucks. Other tactics to avoid capture include pushing half-full fuel tanks off the back of fleeing trucks, parking vehicles cross-wise on dirt roads, or even using chains of women and children as human shields.

The Associated Press