Photo: Eduardo Verdugo, Associated Press
TEPEACA, Mexico — The police officers gripped their assault rifles tightly as they stared at the men filling plastic tanks and loading them onto a dozen pickup trucks in a cornfield in central Mexico. Even though a crime was being committed in front of them, the officers said it was too dangerous to move in.
They had to wait until the army arrived to advance because the suspects were better-armed than they were and an earlier attempt to arrest them had been repelled by gunfire, officials said.
“In the morning there were 40 trucks loading,” said Francisco, a security employee with the state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, who asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons. “We saw them loading, we went in, and they started shooting at us. The criminals had an armored car.”
The suspects weren’t cartel traffickers loading a drug shipment, but gasoline thieves tapping a state-owned pipeline — a form of organized crime that is growing in Mexico and has led to a series of deadly encounters.
Fuel theft in Mexico used to be a few villagers drilling holes in pipelines and carrying away the gasoline in jugs. But the heavy arms and violence seen in Tuesday’s confrontation in Puebla state reflect its growth into a billion-dollar business that supplies not just the people selling gas on the sides of highways — called huachicoleros — but factories and gasoline station chains.
It has become an industrial-scale operation, involving a string of villages and hamlets along pipeline routes, not just in Puebla, but in Guanajuato, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and other Mexican states. 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 this year. It estimates fuel theft costs Mexico about $1 billion a year.
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.
As the stakes have risen, fuel theft has become a blood industry.
In early July, 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.
The battle against the fuel thieves has left a strange huachicolero landscape east of Mexico City. Fields are littered with leaking illegal taps, abandoned fuel tanks and Mad Max-style vehicles whose interiors have been ripped out to hold thousand-liter tanks.
Mark Stevenson is an Associated Press writer.