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Blood and Oil

Mexico’s drug cartels are moving into the gasoline industry — infiltrating the national oil company, selling stolen fuel on the black market and engaging in open war with the military. Can the country’s new populist president find a way to contain the chaos?

I n his white sweatshirt and hot-pink Nikes, the man sitting on a park bench in front of the cathedral in Orizaba looks like an ordinary 32-year-old, but he’s talking about murdering people. He tells me he’s done it eight times and explains the sort of thing that, in his line of work, gets a person killed. “Being a wiseguy,” he says. “Acting tough. Going around like a badass. That obligates you to break them.” He details his methods: “First, you give them an ass-kicking,” he says. “Then, you finish them with a head shot. Or you torture them, so they sing what they know, who they’ve been talking to. You use knives, an ax, whatever you have at hand. A machete. This business we’re in obligates you to do that. That’s the life we live.”

It’s not the life of a narco-trafficker he’s describing, though this part of Mexico is dominated by organized crime. He does not produce or transport drugs, and he’s never smuggled anything across the border. He’s the field boss of a gasoline-stealing mafia, one of perhaps half a dozen based here in the lawless Eastern Sierra Madre. His gang of 25 fuel thieves rides around in five pickup trucks with 1,000-liter pallet tanks and a pile of tools, drilling illegal taps in underground pipelines. They sell the stolen product to taxi drivers, bus companies and long-haul truckers at a significant discount to the price at gas stations run by Petroleos Mexicanos, better known as Pemex, the national oil company. On a good day, he says, he can gross more than $10,000. “The way I look at it, this is my town,” he says. “The gasoline flowing through here is mine.”

Fuel thieves, known in Spanish as huachicoleros (pronounced “watchy-coh-leh-rohs”), have always been around in Mexico, a country with vast oil wealth and a rich tradition of social banditry. In the past, your typical huachicoleros were small bands of grimy outlaws, largely harmless Robin Hoods who operated quietly and earned the goodwill of the people by handing out free buckets of gasoline and sponsoring parades and festivals in poor villages. Accordion ballads celebrated the huachicolero lifestyle, and huachicoleros even got their own patron saint, El Santo Niño Huachicol, a kind of Christ child depicted holding a siphon and a jerrycan.

All that has changed over the past few years, as Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels have moved to monopolize all forms of crime, including fuel theft, muscling out smaller operators with paramilitary tactics honed in the drug war. Black-market gasoline is now a billion-dollar economy, and free-standing gasoline mafias are gaining power in their own right, throwing a volatile accelerant onto the dirty mix of drugs and guns that has already killed some 200,000 Mexicans over the past decade. The most violent year in Mexico’s recorded history was 2017, and some observers now say the conflict has as much to do with petroleum as it does with narcotics.

Pemex is one of the world’s biggest oil companies, a sprawling nationwide power complex with gross revenues of more than $100 billion. Legally, the country’s oil wealth is the property of the people; for decades, Pemex was a government cash cow, funding infrastructure investment and generous social programs even as taxes were kept low. But with production on the decline since 2010 and fuel theft on the rise, Pemex is now a net drain on the federal treasury. “We’ve had to pour 110 billion pesos [about $6 billion] per year from the central bank into the oil company for the last four years,” says Manuel Jose Molano Ruiz, an economist at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. “It’s serious damage to the treasury, money out of every Mexican’s pocket.”

In response, a political coalition led by outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto recently ended the company’s monopoly and opened the energy industry to private foreign investment. For the first time in modern history, multinational oil corporations are moving in, risking the unstable security situation for a chance to get a piece of Mexico’s reserves — an estimated 9 billion barrels of crude oil and 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The need to protect the nation’s energy infrastructure has handed the Mexican government a second security crisis parallel to the ongoing drug war. Last December, Peña Nieto signed the Internal Security Law, which gives the Mexican military the authority to police the country, a measure that can fairly be described as martial law.

Both policies have proved extremely unpopular, with something like 80 percent of Mexicans opposing foreign control over what they consider their national patrimony. In a historic presidential election held July 1st, Mexicans overwhelmingly voted for a crusading outsider named Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a sort of Mexican Bernie Sanders: a white-haired socialist who has spent his entire political career railing against the influence of money in politics. He lives in a drab townhouse, drives an old car and walks the streets without bodyguards — a gesture that galls even his supporters, as more than 100 politicians were assassinated in Mexico during the 2018 election cycle.

Mexico’s last three presidents were business-friendly centrists who promoted free trade and close military cooperation with the United States. López Obrador has criticized the privatization of Pemex and wants to decouple Mexico’s security from the U.S.-led drug war. He has also pledged to deal with crime by addressing the root causes, which he says are poverty and government corruption. In one campaign video, López Obrador stands in front of a Pemex station, which he says is run by a “power mafia,” and claims that for every barrel of gasoline that huachicoleros steal, 10 barrels are stolen by high-level officials in Pemex and the government. “We need to punish the low-level huachicoleros,” he says, “but also the white-collar huachi-coleros up top.”

The man in pink Nikes has met me in this quaint but dangerous mountain town to give an insider’s account of the gangland petroleum wars. He says he has informants inside Pemex and has bought off the cops in all five municipalities around Orizaba. Roving military patrols, though, are a constant threat. Not long ago, he says, two truckloads of Mexican marines surprised him and his gang near Maltrata, a village in the mountains west of Orizaba. “Thirteen of my guys died, along with two marines,” he says. “We got out of there, but we lost the cargo.” As we talk, he keeps an eye on our surroundings from under the brim of his ball cap, falling silent every time someone walks past. “In the beginning, you’re afraid,” he says. “But you end up losing all fear, and you start to like it, especially after surviving a gunfight.”

His gang doesn’t have a name, and he doesn’t belong to Los Zetas, the cartel that dominates this state, but once a month he pays a $10,000 tribute to steal gasoline. The heart of the huachicolero economy is about an hour’s drive west, a region of central Puebla known as the Red Triangle, where dozens of pipelines intersect. Los Zetas used to control the Red Triangle, but lately the ascendant powerhouse in Mexico, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG, has been taking over. Every few days mutilated bodies turn up in the Red Triangle towns of Acajete, Acatzingo, Quecholac, Tepeaca and Palmar de Bravo, the corpses beaten and dismembered, sometimes with their faces peeled off — a signature of the CJNG. On March 29th, police found a man’s body alongside the Puebla-Orizaba highway with a note stuck in his back with a dagger. They would only disclose that the note contained a threat against local huachicoleros and was signed by the CJNG. “Puebla was one of the most peaceful places in Mexico until the CJNG arrived,” says Claudia Lemuz Hernández, the editorial director of Municipios Puebla. “Now when you go out in the morning, the police can’t guarantee you won’t be caught in a firefight.”

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A woman sells gasoline stolen from pipelines on the black market in Veracruz, Mexico. Photo: Rodrigo Cruz

Most analysts consider the CJNG, under its secretive leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias El Mencho, to be the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico — and the country’s reserves of oil and gas represent a potential source of wealth far greater than illegal narcotics could ever yield. The CJNG has been expanding into the state of Guanajuato, another pipeline-dense territory, but the independent gasoline mafia there doesn’t seem intimidated. Last fall, the local huachicolero boss, known as El Marro, or the Sledgehammer, posted a video on YouTube in which he brazenly threatens El Mencho’s henchmen. “We’re going to take out the trash with you in this state,” the Sledgehammer says in the video. Behind him nearly a hundred huachicoleros all dressed in black with body armor and ski masks whoop and whistle, brandishing an arsenal of military weaponry. “Whenever you sons of bitches want it, here we are,” he shouts over the sound of dozens of guns emptying into the air.

Since its founding 80 years ago, Pemex has been a national symbol of oil sovereignty, its red-white-and-green logo as familiar a sight as the Mexican flag. British and American oil companies haven’t been welcome in Mexico since they were kicked out in the wake of the populist Revolution of 1910, having engendered deep resentment for pushing around government officials and unions, paying Mexican workers lower wages than Anglos, and expatriating their profits to London and New York. Pemex was founded on the nationalist idea that Mexicans would themselves be responsible for developing Mexico’s oil wealth, and the profits would be used to benefit the country as a whole. It eventually grew bigger than Gazprom, the Russian state oil company, but it has always had a problem with internal malfeasance and featherbedding. “Corporate governance is poor,” says Duncan Wood, head of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. “It’s disorganized. There are little fiefdoms within it. They strike deals with organized crime and turn a blind eye.” Patrick Corcoran, an analyst at InSight Crime, puts it even more succinctly: “Pemex is a massive cash cow, riddled with corruption.”

Estimates vary, but thieves are currently making off with about 23,500 barrels of fuel every day. Molano Ruiz says gasoline theft on that scale isn’t technically possible without assistance from Pemex insiders, who supply huachicoleros with maps of pipeline networks, tip-offs on when to expect fuel to be flowing, and the necessary tools and parts, including specialized valves. “It’s not like you can buy that stuff in hardware stores,” he says. Between 2006 and 2015, 135 Pemex employees were arrested in connection with fuel theft. One engineer charged $1,250 for every illegal extraction he oversaw.

Where there is pipeline theft, there are fires and spills. The huachicolero I meet in Orizaba tells me that once, when his crew couldn’t figure out how to shut off a drilled tap, they just disconnected the hose and left it gushing gasoline onto the ground. “It’s very risky,” he says. “At any time there can be a spark, an explosion.”

In July 2017, an illegal tap northwest of Mexico City ruptured and shot up a 30-foot gusher of gasoline, soaking houses and fields before Pemex workers controlled it, though not before the Aculco River was badly contaminated. In March 2016, 20 people died after a tanker truck rolled over during a botched hijacking and exploded. One of the worst pipeline fires on record occurred in December 2010, in the huachicolero hotbed of San Martín Texmelucan. After torrents of gasoline flooded the town, a spark turned the streets into rivers of fire. The cloud of toxic smoke was so big that NASA photographed it from space. Twenty-nine people died, including 13 children. The government blamed Los Zetas.

Peña Nieto’s solution was to end Pemex’s monopoly and open the energy industry to foreign corporations, which he and his allies consider inherently more efficient and less susceptible to corruption than a state-owned enterprise. It took them five years to amend the constitution and implement a free-market framework — “the mother of all reforms,” as Wood puts it; an opportunity American firms have been “drooling over for 80 years,” says Corcoran — but privatization is now a done deal. Even as violence spiked in 2017, multinational giants like Exxon Mobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell were moving in; hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was booming on the shale-rock formations south of Texas; and the government was auctioning deepwater exploration rights to Wall Street consortia. The reforms were supposed to lower costs at the pumps but ended up doing the opposite. Public anger at the price hikes occasionally boiled over into riots, and contributed to the election of López Obrador.

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Members of the army transport fuel seized from huachicoleros in Juarez. Photo: Ariel Ojeda/AP

IT’S DIFFICULT TO KNOW what goes on inside Pemex, but there are two important numbers to consider. The first is $1.5 billion. That’s the estimated amount of product huachicoleros are stealing annually. The second is $19 billion. That’s how much Pemex has lost, on average, per year, since 2013. Inefficiencies certainly contribute, but government auditors have flagged more than a hundred contracts that Pemex has issued in recent years, amounting to more than $11 billion in suspected fraud. Losses that large lend credence to López Obrador’s accusations that, as bad as the problem of gasoline theft looks at street level, the wild gun battles may be only a superficial symptom of a free-for-all that mostly takes place in air-conditioned boardrooms. “Everyone has their hand in the cookie jar,” says one former Pemex official who asked not to be named. “You’re touching the Achilles’ heel of Mexico.”

In the corner of a quiet cafe in Puebla, a 49-year-old native of Veracruz whom I will call Ernesto Navarro relates a story about Los Zetas’ entry into the gasoline–stealing business. Navarro, who recently retired, enlisted in the Mexican army out of high school and spent his adult life serving in elite units, including a special–forces corps that was trained in counterinsurgency at the U.S. military program known as the School of the Americas. In 2011, while working for state security in Veracruz, he was assigned by the governor to a task force investigating a Zetas cell in a stretch of the Eastern Sierra Madre that is well-known bandit country and off-limits to government security forces. Navarro assembled a small team of military operatives, all of them authentic jarochos who could speak the lingo and blend in with locals. They dressed in old, muddy clothing and drove a beat-up truck loaded with vegetables into the sierra, where they spent two weeks living among the people, drifting from village to village, passing themselves off as vegetable sellers while collecting information, drawing up maps and taking photos with a hidden camera.

One day, in a dirt-road village called La Guadalupe, Navarro and his team were eating beans and tortillas at a cantina, eavesdropping on a handful of criminals drinking beer at the bar, when a truckload of marines pulled up to the bodega across the street. Navarro was confused. “It was not possible,” he says. Los Zetas had the whole zone under surveillance; if their “falcons” had spotted a marine patrol approaching, all the narcos would have disappeared into the mountains. Taking a closer look, he saw the “marines” were off-loading containers of gasoline to be sold at the bodega. Their weapons were real, but their uniforms and vehicle were counterfeit, “cloned,” as Navarro puts it. “These guys were pure huachicoleros,” he says. “They had just gotten done ‘milking’ a pipeline.” It was the first time he’d seen Los Zetas dealing in stolen gasoline.

In her book Los Zetas Inc., the Mexican academic Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera documents the many ways the cartel has invaded the energy industry in northeastern Mexico. “They were never really a drug cartel,” Correa-Cabrera tells me. The original Zetas were -special-forces veterans, and she describes the organization as a “criminal paramilitary in transnational business” like a hybrid of Halliburton and Blackwater. As she explains it, Los Zetas’ competitive advantage was not in growing marijuana and poppy or coming up with innovative ways to sneak drugs across the border — it was in taking control of strategic territory with overt military force. Once in control of a city or state, Los Zetas would diversify, branching out into criminal activities including pimping, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, gunrunning and even digital piracy, but nothing proved so profitable as stealing gasoline.

Los Zetas have lost a lot of ground in the past decade, but the paramilitary model they pioneered are now standard among Mexico’s major cartels, which have also followed Los Zetas’ lead in exploiting extractive industries: La Familia Michoacána has illegally exported millions of tons of iron ore from the Lázaro Cardenas port; the Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos cartels prey on the Los Filos gold mine in Guerrero; and the Gulf Cartel is stealing natural gas from the Burgos Basin. According to Correa-Cabrera, the drug war has morphed into a broader armed conflict for control of natural resources, with multiple criminal militias and a weak central state vying over mines, ports and oil fields. It’s a dangerous escalation that only makes the cartels more entrenched because they no longer rely on a single income stream. “Theoretically, you could legalize drugs,” says Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, an academic who has long studied fuel theft in Mexico. But when it comes to the illegal trade of oil and gas, “there is no nuclear option.”

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An ex-assassin for Los Zetas, seated at his kitchen table, shows off his military disguise. He says the sale of stolen gasoline is now “as profitable as drugs” for the cartel. Photo: Seth Harp

Late one night last December, I arrive at a small brick house in a dingy suburb not far from the Texas border. Most of the lawns on the block are lit up with Christmas decorations, but this house is dark, with scraggly rosebushes under the windows. The man who lives here used to be a sicario, an assassin for Los Zetas, whom I have agreed to identify only by his alias, El Polkas. He’s tall, looks to be in his forties and cuts an ogre-like figure with a pointy head and a distended stomach. He lets me in the front door and disappears into a back bedroom, giving me a chance to look around. There are two women on the couch, one of whom is bottle-feeding an infant. There’s a Christmas tree with presents under it and a sign above a sliding glass door that says Dios bendiga esta casa: God bless this home. It smells faintly of moldy carpet.

From the back bedroom I hear the unmistakable sound of an assault rifle being loaded and racked, like stomping on a beer can. El Polkas comes out and lays two loaded weapons on the kitchen table, an AR-15 with a scope and collapsible stock, and a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. He has changed into the pixelated camouflage uniform of La Marina, Mexico’s naval infantry; he also has uniforms of the federal, state, municipal and judicial police, all of them authentic, he says, including identification cards.

Like a lot of hit men, El Polkas was working as a police officer when the cartel recruited him. While a sicario, his only job was to carry out kidnappings and executions. He was kept well supplied with weapons and ammunition as well as Buchanan’s whiskey and large quantities of cocaine. He would only receive information on a target — a name or a photograph texted to his phone — on the way to a location. Interrogations were done on a ranch or at a secure safe house. Bodies were buried in a clandestine grave. He says he personally killed 32 people before he got out of Los Zetas by special dispensation of the boss, Heriberto Lazcano. (Incidentally, Lazcano, an ex-paratrooper who led Los Zetas from 2006 until his death in a 2012 firefight, came up in the same special-forces unit as Navarro.) Lazcano allowed El Polkas to leave the cartel on condition he go into hiding.

El Polkas says Los Zetas began selling stolen gasoline around 2010, a time when the cartel was roundly besieged by rivals and the military. “Everyone had started fighting,” he says. “We were losing money.” The first robberies were opportunistic hijackings of tanker trucks, but soon they got into tapping pipelines directly. They found it extremely profitable, with no need to smuggle the product across the increasingly militarized U.S. border, and with a much broader market than illegal drugs. “Everybody needs gasoline,” El Polkas says. “You’re always going to have customers. Especially when it’s cheap.”

In a typical arrangement, he says, Los Zetas designate a low-level police officer or traffic cop on the cartel’s payroll to oversee a crew of huachicoleros, who get paid 500 to 1,000 pesos a day to do the dirty, dangerous work of tapping pipelines. That’s about $40, a good wage for manual labor in Mexico, but if they commit an error, like losing gasoline to the military or accidentally starting a fire, the punishment is death. On the day of the jale, or pull, they set out in a fleet of stolen pickup trucks carrying their trademark 1,000-liter pallet tanks. The target location is usually based on a tip from a Pemex employee, an unpatrolled spot where a batch of fuel is expected to be passing through. If the pipeline is buried, they dig it up. If it’s been sealed in concrete, they chisel it out. “Hot-tapping,” the process of perforating the pipe, is the most delicate operation. First they solder a valve with a threaded nipple onto the surface, then use an auger to drill a hole through it. With high-pressure gasoline spewing in their faces, they screw a hose onto the nipple and use the valve to get the flow under control. Once the hose is hooked up, it takes less than a minute to fill an entire pallet tank, a square plastic container that fits in the bed of a half-ton pickup.

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Map Illustration by Emily Pettit and Meghan Kelly, University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab

Much of the stolen fuel is offloaded at communal farms known as ejidos, El Polkas says, where farmworkers are forced to buy the gasoline whether they want it or not. On stretches of highway far from Pemex stations, it’s common to see people reselling bottles and jugs of huachicol on the side of the road, carrying funnels and siphons, wearing bandannas or paper face masks against the fumes. “I don’t earn anything from this,” says a 27-year-old woman from Orizaba, who sells stolen gas from her house on behalf of Los Zetas. She explains the arrangement as a sort of protection racket. In exchange for fencing the stuff, Los Zetas let you live otherwise normally. In the meantime, you’re stuck with the toxic, flammable liquid. “This stuff is horrible,” she says. “It smells, it’s ugly, it’s corrosive, it burns your hands, and I’m afraid it will blow up the house.”

“It’s good business,” El Polkas says with a shrug. “It makes a lot of money.” When I ask how gasoline compares to narcotics, in terms of overall revenue to Los Zetas, he rubs his index fingers together. “Fifty-fifty,” he says. “It’s approximately as profitable as drugs.”

The armed conflict between the cartels and Mexico’s military, which has dragged on for 12 years, now ranks as the deadliest war in the world apart from Syria. The lack of security, especially in the north and east of the country, was the main reason the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, didn’t stand a chance in July’s election. Neither did the National Action Party, or PAN, though it’s traditionally been the PRI’s only competitor. López Obrador dominated them both with the biggest margin of victory in 36 years. But winning the election will be easy compared with governing. When he takes office on December 1st, he will assume high command over what Correa-Cabrera and other observers call a modern civil war.

It was in 2006 that then-president Felipe Calderón, with the support and encouragement of George W. Bush, made the fateful decision to deploy Mexico’s army and navy around the country to fight organized crime. In 2008, the United States and Mexico signed the Mérida Initiative, under which the U.S. gave nearly $2.5 billion in military aid to the Mexican government. The idea was to crush the cartels by force, but it didn’t work out that way.

The narcos responded by paramilitarizing: Underground drug-smuggling syndicates hired trained soldiers and invested in arsenals and armored vehicles, evolving into far more powerful criminal militias like Los Zetas and the CJNG, which have a lot more than $2.5 billion to spend and easy access to a booming firearms black market, thanks to lax regulations in the U.S. Nowadays, firefights between the cartels and the armed forces can be outright urban infantry battles, with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and even helicopter gunships unloading on safe houses. In places like Reynosa and Tepic, people live in fear of the next round of fighting, monitoring the situation on social media and evacuating their children from school as soon as the shooting starts.

López Obrador got elected, in part, by showing a willingness to change course, but he hasn’t laid out a detailed plan of action. “Anybody who tells you they know what he’s going to do is fooling you,” says Lansberg-Rodriguez. While opponents try to make López Obrador out as another Hugo Chavez, a leftist dictator who will ruin the country, he has steadily tacked toward the center since narrowly losing the presidency in 2006 and again in 2012. And he only won this year after amassing a broad coalition of allies that Lansberg-Rodriguez likens to Noah’s ark; with such a mixed base to keep happy, the 64-year-old president-elect can only “make very broad, open-ended promises with a grandfatherly smile.”

Though López Obrador opposed the privatization of Pemex, he has indicated that he will not try to undo the free-market reforms that have already been implemented. As for security, he has called for a national guard that would merge military and police functions; job programs and scholarships to entice children away from cartels; limited decriminalization of drug possession; and some form of amnesty for low-level, nonviolent cartel workers like farmers and lookouts. But he has not answered the fundamental question of whether, under his leadership, Mexico’s military will continue to hunt down and take out one cartel boss after another, in close cooperation with the DEA and CIA.

“You can’t fight fire with fire,” López Obrador said during his campaign. Another of his slogans was “abrazos no balazos,” meaning “hugs not guns.” At the same time, he has failed to speak out against the controversial Internal Security Law, which the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all denounced as unbefitting a democratic society. “The military isn’t trained for policing,” says Daniel Wilkinson, a Latin America expert at Human Rights Watch. “It’s trained for combat.”

According to a study by Paul Chevigny, a retired New York University professor, the Mexican army kills eight enemies for every one it wounds, a highly unlikely ratio compared with other modern wars. That means Mexican soldiers are either the best marksmen in the world, or they make a practice of summary executions. “When they catch them, they kill them,” El Polkas says, swiping his palms together. “It just happened to three friends of mine.”

El Polkas says the men were employed in stealing gasoline from the node of pipelines in northern Tamaulipas. Every time the police caught them they bribed their way out of jail, till a fresh contingent of marines from Mexico City caught them in the act of tapping a pipeline outside the village of San Germán. He takes out his phone and shows me photos of the aftermath: three men lying dead, their arms and necks deeply gashed by high-caliber bullets, their white truck splattered with blood. On top of the bodies are a couple of military firearms, including a Barrett M82, a .50-caliber rifle issued to government snipers. “The marines planted those,” El Polkas says. “It’s a complete sham.” He says his friends would still be alive if they’d had money to negotiate, and relates a recent incident in which the marines captured the Gulf Cartel’s second-in-command in Mata-moros. “This guy grabs his phone and dials up the general. For $50,000 and 50 kilos of marijuana, they let him go. He also gave up 10,000 pesos he had on his person. That’s how it works with los militares.” When I ask what the marines would want with a bale of marijuana, the sicario’s oafish face lights up with a childlike smile. “For the platoon to smoke,” he says.

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Gas theft has caused stations to post “no fuel” signs. Photo: Cesar Rodriguez

In the red Triangle region of Puebla, a number of armed groups are competing over access to the Minatitlán-Mexico City pipeline. Some are direct cartel subsidiaries, others are only loosely allied, and some are completely independent, causing a cross-multiplication of potential conflicts. Up until last year, the two most dominant huachicolero bosses were said to be Zetas: Jesús Martín Mirón López, alias El Kalimba, a swaggering 27-year-old ex-cop; and Roberto de los Santos de Jesús, 37, also a former police officer, nicknamed El Bukanans, presumably for Buchanan’s whiskey, the preferred beverage of Mexico’s criminal class. They were notorious for bullying men and boys into working for them, robbing houses, looting stores and stealing pickup trucks to carry their pallet tanks; at the sight of El Bukanans’ infamous yellow Corvette, people would flee indoors.

Things started to change in early 2017, with the arrival of the CJNG in Puebla. As the CJNG spreads, it is also waging a public-relations campaign to present itself as a social-cleansing force, a cartel that smuggles drugs but doesn’t rob and rape and kidnap like the hated Zetas. CJNG was relatively unknown until 2011, when it systematically massacred nearly a hundred suspected Zetas over a period of 18 days in Veracruz. Something like that is now happening in Puebla, where Zetas-backed huachicoleros have been turning up dead all year, some chopped to pieces and left in plastic bags, some dismembered and left on public squares, some with their faces flayed off.

The purge reached a climax in early November 2017, when 20 people were killed in one week, including some of the most well-known huachicoleros. El Bukanans seems to have escaped to the mountains around Acult-zingo, his hometown, but El Kalimba made a fatal mistake. He went to a plastic surgeon in Puebla to have his fingerprints removed and his facial features altered, presumably to evade the CJNG. While he was unconscious on the operating table, gunmen burst in and killed him along with his girlfriend and two bodyguards. On their way out, the assassins took the security cameras and video monitors; the only witnesses were a nurse and two little kids, ages five and eight, who hid at the first sound of gunshots.

But the CJNG hasn’t driven huachicoleros from Puebla, only installed a new boss: Antonio Martínez Fuentes, alias El Toñín, a former carrot farmer in his fifties who is known for throwing big parties and handing out toys to children. A corrido extolling his virtues was recently posted to YouTube: “There are some heavy dudes in Palmarito . . . cars and bitchin’ trucks, plenty of money . . . They call them huachicoleros . . . guys with big balls . . . it’s the people of El Toñín.”

One of the most intensely contested towns in the Red Triangle is Palmar de Bravo, where a diminutive grandmother named Benita (last name withheld for her safety) was born and raised. One evening in September 2017, on her way home from the workshop in Puebla where she’s employed as a seamstress, she stumbled upon a massacre. Her commute is an hour and a half, and after taking two buses, she got off at her usual stop in the middle of town. She was walking toward her house, a little old lady in Crocs and a work shirt, when she heard people shouting, turned around and saw a group of men with machetes jump out of three armored trucks and attack four or five people in the street.

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A fire caused by pipeline tapping in the state of Puebela. Francisco Guasco

It was the most gruesome thing she ever saw. One of the victims was split wide open from the throat to his belly. Before the men with machetes saw her, she slipped into a tank of water that stood by the road, submerged herself up to her nose and waited until it was dark. Something awful was happening in Palmar de Bravo. She could hear gunfire and screaming from points all over town, and big trucks were continually tearing past her hiding place. Thirty minutes after night fell she climbed out of the tank and padded home soaking wet, taking a roundabout way through the fields to her house, where she found her 20-odd family members locked inside, terrified. The rampage continued past midnight, the men in armored trucks marauding around town, “slaughtering people like animals,” she says, shooting up houses and ransacking businesses. Before leaving, the attackers gathered up most of the bodies and took them away.

After it was over, the army showed up, as did the municipal police, who collected the remaining corpses. When I ask if the killers were Zetas or CJNG, narcos or huachicoleros, Benita shrugs. “Who knows?” she says. “They’re the same.” This took place just as the CJNG’s purge was ramping up, but the people directly affected by violence in Mexico often have no idea who is behind a particular attack; at street level, it can look like pure mayhem. To her knowledge there was never any police investigation. The authorities said nothing. No journalists ever came to Palmar de Bravo, and the incident was never reported in any media. “For sure,” she says, “this is happening in other communities.”

Palmar de Bravo remains extremely dangerous, with marauding convoys of sicarios regularly passing through. “Trucks full of armed men, robbing people, harassing girls, feeling them up, and no one can say anything,” Benita says. When night falls, people hurry home and lock their doors. As for Benita, she still has nightmares of seeing the man cut open by a machete. Every day on her way to work she passes the spot where it happened. There is still blood in the dirt.

Meanwhile, in the once-peaceful state of Guanajuato, the CJNG seems to have accepted the Sledgehammer’s YouTube invitation to brawl. In one 12-hour spree in May, they killed 16 people supposedly allied to the locally based gasoline gang, including a mayoral candidate, a police captain and two other officers. They hung banners declaring war on the Sledgehammer and warning the public of more violence to come. The huachicoleros struck back a month later, leaving a plastic garbage bag filled with human remains alongside a banner threatening the CJNG. The cartel retaliated in July, gunning down another police commander and dumping more dismembered corpses alongside yet another threatening banner. The cycle of retribution has continued through the summer: stupid, brutal and seemingly endless — and now twice as hard to stop since the stakes have widened to include much of Mexico’s legitimate economy. “You can’t get rid of the cartels,” the Associated Press’ correspondent in Xalapa tells me. “They’re going to continue killing and stealing anything they can get their hands on. I don’t see any exit.”

When it comes to organized crime, there is always a nexus with the border. At a junkyard just outside Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas, a half dozen men stand around grilling meat and drinking beer, cutting up onions and pounding tomatoes in a stone molcajete. A bulldog sleeps on the oil-soaked dirt. The district attorney of Cameron County, Luis Saenz, is here visiting with constituents, and I tell him I’ve heard long-haul truckers in Texas are buying cheap diesel stolen from Mexico. “That would be very illegal,” he says. “It’s a crime to receive stolen property, even if the theft occurred in another country.” But he’s never seen a case like that, he says, and fuel theft is not a law-enforcement priority in his jurisdiction.

I’ve come here with a colleague, a Brownsville journalist, and out of the DA’s earshot, one of the men at the barbecue tells us two addresses where we might find what we’re looking for. The first is near the intersection of North Minnesota Avenue and East 14th Street. A dozen semitrailers and tractor cabs sit in a gravel lot behind a taco stand. Parked where it can’t be seen from the road is a tanker truck with a nozzle and hose. We slouch down in the front of my truck, waiting to see if any customers come by, until a guy starts walking over with his hand in his pocket. I shift into gear, and we drive away.

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A funeral for one of nine people killed in a gunfight between rival gangs in the town of Huehuetlan el Grande in Puebla. Photo: Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg/Getty

According to our informant, the second address is a Gulf Cartel stash house. It’s just off Paredes Line Road in what would be a prime location for smuggling, a stone’s throw from the international railroad known in Mexico as La Bestia, or the Beast. I park out of sight and we approach on foot, pretending to be looking for a lost dog. The property is a single-story house on about an acre of land. There is a padlocked chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and a keep out sign posted. In the side yard a man in a Bobcat skid loader is burying something, so we use a footpath to sneak around back and peer into the yard. Sitting in the tall grass are nine pallet tanks holding about 2,000 gallons — or $6,000 — of fuel.

While most of Mexico’s stolen gasoline is sold domestically, plenty of it winds up in the U.S., especially when the variable price of fuel on the world market rises above the fixed price in Mexico. In 2010, Pemex filed a series of lawsuits in U.S. federal court accusing dozens of Texas companies, including affiliates of Shell, Conoco-Phillips and Sunoco, of knowingly purchasing natural gas stolen from Mexico. The companies deny it, but according to allegations Pemex presented in court, they sent tanker trucks filled with water but labeled as natural gas across the border, and brought them back refilled with stolen natural gas condensate, passing false documents and bribing customs officials along the way.

“The theft was pretty intense,” says Jerry Robinette, a retired Homeland Security Investigations agent who at the time was in charge of looking into the criminal side of Pemex’s allegations. “Pemex was losing somewhere around half their production in the Burgos Basin,” a huge natural-gas formation squarely in the Gulf Cartel’s territory. To prove the natural gas in question was actually stolen, HSI sent investigators in military helicopters to take samples, whose unique molecular composition they compared to product stored in Texas facilities. On the Texas side of the border, HSI used surveillance methods that Robinette declines to describe, though he does mention “firsthand knowledge” of certain phone conversations. Five Texas executives ended up pleading guilty to criminal charges, but Robinette says 30 more were under suspicion. “We know some folks got away with it,” he says. “Some may still be looking over their shoulder.”

I sent several inquiries to Customs and Border Protection trying to understand how they prevent stolen fuel from entering the U.S. supply. A spokesman could not identify any standing measures that are in place to systematically check the provenance of oil and gas imports. In general, they will only investigate if there has been a complaint.

At an empty Tex-Mex restaurant in Brownsville, I meet a Mexican-American businessman who has been importing and exporting oil and gas for the past 17 years. He’s middle-aged and wears a goatee, with a fat ring on one finger. He agrees to speak only on condition of anonymity, because his family still lives on the other side of the river, in Matamoros. According to him, all imports and exports at the border crossing are controlled by the Gulf Cartel, the original Mexican crime syndicate, which still has a tight grip on the northeast corner of the country.

The businessman takes out a pen and sketches a grid on a napkin. “It’s like this,” he says, marking each corner of each square in the grid. “On every corner of every block, in every store, on every bridge, in every park on both sides of the river they have ‘falcons’ counting how many trucks are passing, who is driving them and what merchandise they’re carrying.” He says the cartel charges a quota on every shipment that goes over the border. For gasoline and diesel, the current quota is one peso per liter, coming and going. “They even give you an invoice,” he says. “It can say whatever you want — transport, maintenance, construction, anything. They call it organized crime because it’s very organized.”

He slips the protective cover off his phone. Stuck to the back is a yellow sticky note with a phone number on it. “Once you’ve paid, they give you a phone number. If you have any problems, they’ll be there to fix it within two minutes. Four times I’ve had to call this number with a gun to my head.”

Over the next half hour, the businessman describes a dozen or more illegal schemes around the import and export of oil and gas between Texas and Mexico, everything from smuggling marine diesel in shrimp boats to passing gasoline off as unrefined lubricant to evade customs. As for huachicoleros, he says tapping pipelines is “kid stuff.” He tells me far more fuel is stolen by people who don’t carry guns and never get their hands dirty. Paperwork authorizing a shipment of gasoline from a storage facility is simply copied 20 or 30 times, he says, and with each fake slip, a tanker truck carrying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of product is simply driven off the premises. Men sitting at desks wearing white collars and ties cover up the discrepancies, and if any loss is too big to hide, they can always blame it on the grubby huachicoleros the military is working so hard to eradicate. “Why tap pipelines?” he says, holding up a blank napkin as a prop. “Here’s your paperwork right here.” It’s a refrain I’ve heard countless times by now, repeated by virtually every Mexican I spoke to for this story: “The real theft happens inside Pemex.”