For a decade, between 1999 and 2009, Colombia suffered from fuel theft.
In this illegal activity, guerrilla and paramilitary groups participated, as well as the drug cartels, which caused the company Ecopetrol losses of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The worst year was 2002, when an average of 7,270 barrels of fuel, equivalent to 1.15 million liters, were stolen per day.
Although the commercialization of stolen gasoline has always had an economic attraction, this practice began with the production of cocaine, which uses petroleum products as an input.
To produce a kilo of cocaine, you need, in addition to one hundred kilos of coca leaf and other ingredients, almost 40 liters of gasoline or diesel.
The fuel is used to absorb the alkaloids released by the coca leaves with the help of a mixture of sodium carbonate, calcium carbonate and sulfuric acid.
Over time, criminal organizations began to steal even crude oil, which they processed in clandestine refineries, which allowed them to generate two byproducts known as suckling pig and hexane, which, according to drug traffickers, gives better quality to cocaine.
According to data from Ecopetrol, Colombia has a pipeline network of eight thousand 954 kilometers, of which five thousand 467 are oil pipelines and three thousand 106 are pipelines.
One of the main pockets of attack by the fuel thieves is the Trans-Andean Pipeline, which links the production areas of the southern department of Putumayo with the port of San Andrés de Tumaco, in the Pacific. Another is the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, which borders the Venezuelan border in the eastern part of the country.
In both cases, the participation of the FARC, the guerrilla with which the Colombian government signed a peace agreement, was widely documented.
The presence of Mexican cartels in illegal fuel theft has also been detected. In October 2016, the newspaper El Colombiano reported on a police investigation that detected the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in the department of Nariño, due to its interest in cocaine produced with suckling pig.
In addition to the economic damage, the hydrocarbon theft caused great damage to the environment. According to Ecopetrol, fuel thieves only used 38% of the product and discarded the rest in soils and rivers.
When the illegal extraction of oil and petroleum products reached its peak in 2002, Ecopetrol and the Colombian government established "a joint strategy, in which, through a strong coordination and assurance component, police, judicial, legal, and technological actions were integrated, operational and social, with a high commitment from the government and its institutions "( El Nuevo Siglo , April 22, 2013).
"Security and surveillance measures were increased by the police and military forces, while interdisciplinary groups were created, dedicated exclusively to the control of hydrocarbons seizure, where support structures, known as Edas, were interconnected. with officials of the Prosecutor's Office, the CTI (Technical Investigation Corps), the disappeared Administrative Department of Security (DAS) and the Central Directorate of Judicial Police and Intelligence (DIJIN). "
These Edas had "the responsibility to conduct investigations, prosecute criminals and encourage the strengthening of laws and decrees to promote legal changes in order to combat this activity with more force".
Simultaneously, Ecopetrol developed leak detection systems, using different technologies, to accurately identify the location of illicit drilling and the quantification of stolen volumes.
Thus, in ten years, Colombia achieved a decrease of more than 97% in fuel theft. "Of the more than seven thousand barrels per day that were stolen on average in 2002, it went to 23 barrels per day in 2012."
That is, there is a way to attack this illegal activity, which can be even more profitable than drug trafficking.
( This delivery of the Bitácora was originally published on May 10, 2017. Today it reappears because of the interest that exists in the subject .)
Colombia’s finance minister said Mexico should look to the South American country as an example to follow in the fight against fuel theft, but the statement raises questions about how successful Colombia’s approach to the issue has really been.
In an interview with Mexican daily El Universal, Colombia’s Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas said Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex could learn how to combat fuel theft from its Colombian counterpart, Ecopetrol.
“If you want to, you can do it,” Cárdenas told El Universal. “There’s a very productive and constant dialogue between Pemex and Ecopetrol, with lots of opportunities for joint operations between them.”
Cárdenas said Colombia had substantially reduced fuel theft, depriving criminal organizations of an important revenue stream. He claimed technological advancements helped authorities to detect theft more quickly, and also to build stronger and safer pipelines.
Oil theft continues to plague Mexico. Aided by corruption, the practice has grown exponentially in recent years; in 2016 alone, Pemex lost at least $1.5 billion in stolen fuel.
Contrary to Cárdenas’ claims, however, Colombia is hardly an example Mexico should follow in the quest to eradicate oil theft. In fact, Colombian organized crime groups still benefit significantly from the criminal activity, albeit in different and arguably more sophisticated ways than their Mexican counterparts.
While Mexican crime groups, most notably the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, profit from fuel theft by selling stolen oil on the black market, Colombian armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) profit from the oil industry by and large by extorting companies and threatening to blow up the pipelines if they fail to comply.
Colombian crime groups also rely on stolen fuel for processing cocaine. Illegal armed groups in Colombia have long used artisanal refineries to refine stolen crude oil and eventually use it to produce coca base. In addition, stolen fuel is used to power machinery used in illegal mining operations.
During a recent field investigation, InSight Crime learned that while the number of illegal oil siphoning valves found on Ecopetrol’s Trans-Andean Pipeline (Oleoducto Transandino) in southwest Colombia appears to have fallen over the past few years, the pipeline still lost nearly 20 million liters of oil to siphoning in 2016 alone. (See graph below)
Thus, despite Cárdenas’ assertions, it appears that Colombia still has a long way to go in terms of putting an end to this illicit activity.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that as of this Friday personnel of the armed forces will monitor the pipeline network of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) by air, after the Tuxpan-Azcapotzalco pipeline was damaged intentionally by the dawn of yesterday. Second time in less than 24 hours.
In his morning conference, the president revealed that the leak in said pipeline was detected at 11 o'clock at night, just a few hours after having been repaired by Pemex technicians.
"The damage has already been repaired and in one hour the supply will be restored," he said.
To prevent such events from happening again, López Obrador announced that "since yesterday (Thursday), and today, the helicopter surveillance of the Air Force begins in all the pipelines".
In addition, he added that in parallel, surveillance bases are being created around said facilities.
López Obrador reiterated that there will be no retreat in the fight against huachicoleo. "I already said it, to see who gets tired first," he warned.
At the conference, where he was accompanied by relatives of Emiliano Zapata, the federal executive acknowledged that there are tanker-fuel tanks on the coasts, but insisted that there is sufficient gasoline and turbosine, and soon supply at gas stations will be restored.
Also, he presumed since the beginning of the fight against the theft of hydrocarbons have saved about 3 billion pesos with the reduction of theft.
Third Sabotage to the Tuxpan-Azcapotzalco pipeline
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador accepted that there are ships stranded in the Gulf of Mexico denying energy minister Rocío Nahle García, after local media in Veracruz reported at least 29 maritime ships waiting to unload gasoline.
Despite endorsing the information, the president did not elaborate on the issue and also did not mention the number of vessels affected.
Yesterday, Nahle García justified that the oil tankers arrive to the country every week, which causes traffic and that a line is formed to order the unloading.
In addition, in his morning conference, the Executive revealed that yesterday, at 23:00 hours, the Tuxpan-Azcapotzalco pipeline, repaired the previous morning, was damaged again.
"Yesterday at dawn they broke the pipeline, it was repaired, it was loaded, packed, working all day, and at 11 at night it was broken again, it is being repaired again, they inform me that in one more hour the supply, "he said during his morning media conference.
4 thousand elements in fight against huachicoleo
He explained that 4 thousand elements of the Federal, Military and Naval Police guard the pipelines of Pemex.
"Yesterday I spoke that there are 1,600 kilometers of strategic pipelines for which they are transported around 400 thousand barrels per day of gasoline, and those six pipelines are the most affected, those that have alternate networks, those that milk more and in some cases , they deliberately break them, "he said.
The president stated that, since the anti-Huachicol plan began, they reduced the theft of pipes from 800 to 100 a day.
"I already said it, to see who gets tired first, because we are going to stop stealing gasoline, they stole more than 800 pipes every day and since we started this plan we have dropped to 100 pippas, that is, 700 pips less", he assured.
He announced that the Air Force will join the surveillance of the distribution network throughout the country. Likewise, he challenged the "huachicoleros", asserting "let's see who gets tired first!" In the fight against fuel theft.
It must be fairly easy to surveil gas pipes and pinpoint exact leak locations. I mean, they do that in other, more secure parts of the world, for other reasons than crime. It is probably costly to implement, but AMLO must run out of political goodwill at some point if he can't keep up distribution the old fashioned way.