This week at least 2,500 Mexican Army soldiers with heavy artillery and 500 Federal Police guards will be stationed along 26 municipalities in what is known as the northeastern sierra of the state of Puebla. The occupation was ordered by President Enrique Peña Nieto and requested by current Puebla state governor José Antonio Gali Fayad.
Last Wednesday and Thursday men accused of stealing gasoline from the Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) owned fuel ducts opened fire against the soldiers. In the first clash the armed men used women and children as human shield, so the soldiers could not fire.
Yet the next day, a military group encountered a convoy of pickup trucks who responded accordingly, firing at the soldiers, but the men were not using human shields. This time there were six dead, four of them soldiers and 11 wounded, 10 of them soldiers, according to a report from the National Defense Secretariat (Sedena). There were 14 men of the armed group arrested.
On Friday, the residents of a hamlet called Palmarito Tochapan, in the Quecholac municipality, set up a road blockade for about five hours impeding the traffic between Puebla City and Orizaba, in the state of Veracruz. They also set dozens of tires ablaze creating a noxious smoke cloud. Strangely, though, soldiers and policemen were watching the protesters and did not evict them from the road; the demonstrators walked away silently and peacefully around 5 p.m.
What the protesters demanded was to point the finger at the Army for using brutality in their repression and for allowing them to freely “milk” the Pemex ducts in order to sell gasoline in the now enormous black market — particularly in the state of Puebla, where the “huachicoleros” sell a liter of gas at 10 pesos when the same fuel costs 16.50 and 18.50 at filling stations.
The fuel and petrochemical ducts that cross Puebla run from the refineries located on the Gulf of Mexico coast in the city of Minatitlán to Mexico City consumption.
According to Non-Government Organization Gobierno Fácil (Easy Governance), the duct milking phenomena has existed since 2000 and by 2016 at least 3,218 illegal plugs had been detected by Pemex.
The gasoline theft, however, took massive proportions as of 2011 in the 24 Puebla municipalities where the six feet deep ducts cross the state, forming a now secured area called the “Red Triangle.”
Similar gasoline theft has also been going on near Tula, Hidalgo, and Salamanca, Guanajuato, expanding the number of people participating in its robbery, distribution and sale.
President Peña Nieto has now ordered a “plan” by the Army and the state police departments, where many a corrupt cop was involved in the theft and the only way to stop it is by closely watching the path of the ducts.
Why now? That may be a pertinent question with no answer, but it is common knowledge that gasoline theft has reached over 100 billion pesos ($5.2 billion) at a national level with the Puebla sacking being the most extensive and which has produced organized criminal gangs named “huachicoleros.”
This word, according to linguists, stems out of the Spanish “guacho,” which describes a person who digs holes for a living. Popular slang called stolen gasoline “huachicol,” a word that was also used in the past for moonshine liquor. And the “huachicoleros” are the people who dig six feet deep holes to get to the Pemex ducts, which they have well detected. This illegal trade has produced hundreds of fires and of course, losses to Pemex.
For the theft, police have already arrested many former Pemex workers — from installers to engineers — who taught the “huachicoleros” how to tap the ducts and informed schedules in which Pemex pumped different types of gasoline and diesel, as the ducts do not have a permanent flow.
The declaration of war against “huachicoleros” is definitely a must for the government, as well as eradicating all the thousands of milking taps along the route, because the gasoline black market is distorting the national economy and also because it is a crime that has literally gotten out of control.
By the way, on Saturday a convoy of people from Palmarito Tochapan tried to enter Mexico City in order to file a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), but the Mexico City police stopped them before they could enter the city and sent them back home.
This immediate war on Pemex gasoline theft presents a different face to authorities, as it is the people of those townships along the duct that have changed to making a living by being “huachicoleros.” They like easy money and obviously don’t want to give it up. It is definitely more profitable than farming or raising cattle.
This problem could have had a solution a long time ago, but then, action in Mexico only comes when things get out of hand.