The War on Huachicol: Mexico’s Crackdown on Gas Thieves

The War on Huachicol: Mexico’s Crackdown on Gas Thieves

By Mike Green

Mexico’s recent military clampdown on organized criminals that sell stolen gas, or huachicol, has produced short-term results. But until the corruption that enables the black market for contraband is addressed, the long-term effects of the measures are unclear.

Large-scale gasoline theft takes many forms, such as siphoning pipelines, bribing employees, and intercepting tanker trucks.[1] This makes gas thievery difficult to address, as simply cutting off siphoned pipelines leads to gas shortages.[2] Huachicoleros, or gasoline thieves, are not unique to Mexico,[3] but they attract significant attention for two reasons. First, oil in Mexico is nationalized,[4] so corruption and theft of Pemex (the national oil company) directly implicates the Federal government. Second, cartels make headlines for their boldness and violence in the triángulo rojo in Guanajuato and Puebla, where much of Pemex’s infrastructure is.[5] Since the rise of systematic gas thievery, Guanajuato has saddled one of the highest homicide rates per capita in Mexico.[6]

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) led a comprehensive military crackdown on huachicol upon election to the presidency in 2018. The strategy involves collaboration between the military, national guard, and local authorities in order to perform surveillance, catch thieves red-handed, and seize contraband oil.[7]

In a way, this approach has seen success. Official numbers show a decrease in stolen gasoline from 81,000 stolen barrels a day to 5,000 since AMLO assumed office.[8] And authorities recently captured El Morro, leader of Santa Rosa de Lima, a notoriously violent and territorial cartel associated with huachicol.[9] Official counts in Mexico should be taken with a grain of salt,[10] but AMLO’s measures have (apparently) produced quantifiable short-term results.

Questions linger about the long-term consequences of the militarized crackdown, however. The measures, despite their short-term results, have not eradicated the problem: brutal violence remains, as armed gangs won’t go down without a fight.[11] While stolen gasoline numbers have decreased in the triángulo rojo of Guanajuanto and Puebla, they have increased in many other Mexican states.[12] And closer to home, U.S. national security officials worry of the recent spike in attacks by huachicolero pirates on offshore oil rigs.[13]

To comprehensively address issues like huachicol, state and international authorities must work together to root out the corruption that allows black markets for gasoline to flourish. Until then, the long-term implications of AMLO’s broad use of military force remain to be seen. In the meantime organized criminals in Mexico and all across Latin America will continue to exploit the ever-present market for cheap and dirty gasoline.


[1] Alberto Nájar, “Huachicol”: Por Qué Hay Desabasto de Gasolina en México y Qué Tiene Que Ver AMLO, BBC Mundo (Jan. 9, 2019) (describing measures that have recently needed to be taken to prevent gas theft, such as military presence at pipelines and the monitoring of tanker trucks).

[2] Id.

[3] Alicia Flórez, Why Oil Theft Spread Across Latin America During Pandemic, InSight Crime (Oct. 1, 2020)

[4] Decreto de Secretaria de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Diario Oficial de la Federación [DOF] 19-3-1938 (Mex.). As an aside, Article 27 of the Mexican constitution explicitly vests the sovereign with all mineral rights and provides for expropriation (as occurred in the 1938 decree) of said minerals. Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, CPEUM, Art. 27, Diario Oficial de la Federación [DOF] 05-02-1917, últimas reformas DOF 24-12-2020.

[5] See e.g. Alejandro Hope, Guanajuanto, el huachicol y la violencia que no para, El Universal (Jan. 13, 2021)

[6] Se contiene crecimiento en homicidios y se reducen delitos patrimoniales durante 2019, Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana (Jan. 21, 2020), (citing the five states with the highest homicide rates, with Guanajuato fourth).

[7]See, e.g., Alejandra Gudiño, Detectan 2 tomas clandestinas de huachicol en Tepetlaoxtoc, Milenio (August 7, 2020) (federal and state law enforcement coordination in Estado de México); Martín Hernández Alcántara, Reconfigurará Esta Semana El Gobierno Estatal su Estrategia vs. El Huachicol y Robo a Transporte, La Jornada de Oriente (Jan. 5, 2021) (military coordination in Puebla).

[8]Boletín 653/19, Los operativos coordinados han disminuido el robo de combustible de 81 mil a un promedio de 5 mil barriles diarios, Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana (June 28, 2019)

[9] Kate Linthicum, Mexico Arrests ‘El Marro’, L.A. Times (Aug. 2, 2020),

[10] For example, the current Mexican government has been notoriously disingenuous in counting COVID cases and deaths. David Luhnow & Juan Montes, 29 Family Members Fell Ill With Covid. Mexico Didn’t Count Them., Wall St. J. (Jan. 14, 2021),

[11] Alejandro Hope, supra note 5.

[12] Nayeli González, Huachicol tiene efecto cucaracha; repunta en estados donde no había, Excelsior (July 3, 2019),

[13] Kirk Semple, Piracy Surges in Gulf of Mexico, Prompting U.S. Warning, N.Y. Times (June 18, 2020)