By RICARDO CASTILLO
By shutting off the ducts carrying fuel from the state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) in order to stop robbery, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) opened up a Pandora’s box. His problem is now how to shut it closed again.
AMLO’s open declaration of war against huachicol (pronounce wa-chee-kol), or fuel theft, is, 17 days since it was declared, to have many more fronts than expected, causing a conflict of major proportions, not just for the government, but for every vehicle owner who is learning the hard way that motors run on gas or diesel.
One of the consequences of shutting off the ducts to catch culprits within Pemex, AMLO broke off the supply chain to consumers, creating a new quagmire that will definitely prove hard to solve.
The first front is that valve and duct pressure control was, up until last Dec. 27 – when AMLO’s war was declared – in the hands of Mexico’s Oil Workers Union members, a cadre which had been forever protected by past presidents and it is known as the forefront on fuel theft.
In fact, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, AMLO mentioned by name former presidents Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, all of whom he accused of playing dumb and never addressing the fuel robbery at Pemex. Were these former presidents getting a kickback? AMLO did not specifically answer that question, instead claiming they “ignored” fuel robbery at Pemex.
AMLO’s first move was to mobilize 4,000 Mexican Army soldiers to get control of the main refineries. In the raid, three key managers of Pemex Logistics – with names withheld so far – who wielded electronic centralized control of the ducts from the Pemex Tower in Mexico City were charged.
It is clear by now that the huachicol was not merely a petty theft of fuel from Pemex, but a highly sophisticated and well-organized scam involving a veritable chain of command, starting at Pemex Tower down to the refineries, and including the union which controls the tankers that deliver at filling stations and, at the end of the line, a group of filling stations.
Starting from the bottom up, according to Pemex insider stoolpigeons, the filling stations, in order to keep their concessions, had to make monthly orders to Pemex Logistics for fillups. Since the order had to be filed and paid for a month in advance, station owners who were receiving stolen fuels (regular, prime and diesel) began ordering and paying only half of their order. The other half they were getting from the insider thieves.
Since they were caught offguard by the Army takeover of facilities, these fillings stations did get the contracted fill and paid to Pemex as usual. But this time, the stolen fuels did not arrive and these stations – literally hundreds of them – were the first to close service. The allotted gas they were getting at 14 pesos per liter never arrived. It was clear to police investigating the case who the filling station concessionaires were that had been buying stolen fuel.
Moving up the line, the second front opened up within the Pemex Oil Workers Union, which, on seeing itself surrounded by armed soldiers policing refineries and distribution centers, opted to assume a silent “fallen arms” stance. The term “fallen arms” (brazos caídos) is used by Mexican striking workers who attend to their jobs, but do not carry them out. Naturally, these workers are not considered to be in an official strike.
However, Pemex Oil Workers Union leader Carlos Romero Deschamps is not presenting a front against AMLO’s move. On the contrary, he says AMLO “is doing the right thing,” adding that the already devastating economic price Mexicans are paying for the fight against fuels theft “is a small price to pay.” But can we believe Romero, who is infamously acknowledged as Mexico’s most corrupt labor leader? Most people do not, but he’s got to play politics as demanded by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in which he still serves.
Another battle front AMLO is facing is the one he announced on Thursday, Jan. 10, during his morning press conference. The president had raised expectations that he would be regularizing fuel delivery to Mexico City (where all the political noise is being heard), but instead, in his daily morning press conference, he said shortages would get worse before they improve:
“The problem with gasoline shortages in Mexico City came because there was sabotage in a gasoline carrying duct from Tuxpan (on the Gulf of Mexico coast) to Azcapotzalco (a storage center in Mexico City). One damaged hole was fixed, but then they blocked again,” he explained. Apparently that second “damaged duct” has been fixed, again.
Who are the “they” that AMLO was referring to? The president didn’t specify, but to this observer a new – and expected – front opened up from organized criminals who had made huachicol the source of their second main income after drugs.
According to AMLO’s figures, huachicol was a theft yielding 60 billion pesos a year to those carrying it out and may not have been operated by just a few people. AMLO contends, however, that only 20 percent of gasoline was directly stolen from the pipelines, which had literally thousands of puncture points to milk the fuels. Are organized criminals becoming a guerrilla force? Duct sabotage surely points in that direction.
AMLO claims this is a temporary situation and there is no fuel shortage. Obviously, distribution is the main problem the Pemex administration is facing.
So far, most Mexicans seem to understand that Pemex is a government-run entity and therefore belongs to the nation. Consequently, those who steal from it, steal from all Mexicans.
Public patience is running thin as lines at filling stations get longer and people spend valuable hours waiting for “a drop of fuel.”
AMLO keeps insisting that the situation will soon be resolved, which is an argument that can be backed up with just two answers: Replenish filling stations and prove that there is no gasoline shortage in Mexico, and continue the theft investigation, putting nervous criminals behind bars while ordinary drivers go about their business with a tank full of gas.