July 25, 2011 / 5:35 PM / 8 years ago

Pemex counts 100 workers linked to Mexico fuel thefts

 * Few oil theft cases end in a conviction
 * Pemex lost $600 million since last year to robberies
 * State workers aiding theft could face stiffer penalties
 By Mica Rosenberg
 MEXICO CITY, July 25 (Reuters) - More than 100 oil workers
and contractors hired by Mexico's state oil monopoly Pemex have
aided criminal gangs stealing millions of barrels of fuel over
the past decade, a document obtained by Reuters shows.
 The corrupt workers collaborate with crime gangs, some with
links to powerful drug cartels, to hijack tanker trucks or
siphon gas, crude oil and jet fuel out of tens of thousands of
miles (kilometers) of pipelines snaking across Mexico.
 Since 2001, 97 workers and seven contractors, usually truck
drivers, have been linked to fuel thefts, Pemex [PEMEX.UL] told
Reuters through a freedom-of-information request.
 Some of those staff members have engineering skills and
inside knowledge of the company.
 Fuel theft has cost Pemex some $600 million since last year
alone -- a major headache for Mexico's government, which relies
on oil revenues for about a third of its budget.
 For graphic, see: r.reuters.com/vyh72s
 Full coverage of drugs war: link.reuters.com/wam89p
 Factbox on political risks in Mexico: [ID:nRISKMX]
 The government is trying to address the problem and a new
law moving through Congress would slap stiffer penalties on
employees convicted of willingly collaborating on thefts. Those
found guilty could face up to six years behind bars.
 But the weakness of Mexico's judicial system makes
convicting criminals difficult. Only 15 sentences have been
handed out from the more than 2,600 formal complaints Pemex
filed for fuel thefts since 2000 through August of last year.
 "The (Pemex employees) that look the other way are working
with the bad guys. It's an alliance," said a former contractor
for Pemex who worked with the company for 30 years.
 "There are groups at every level and everyone knows about
it," he said, asking not to be identified because of his
current position in a Mexican state government.
 The crooked workers are just a tiny fraction of the nearly
150,000 employees that make the state oil behemoth one of the
largest companies in the world and Pemex says the biggest
culprits are organized crime syndicates, not insiders.
 Pemex is suing several U.S. companies accused of buying
stolen Mexican natural gas condensate, a gasoline-like
by-product used in petrochemical plants.[ID:nN01194100]
 A handful of U.S. executives pleaded guilty to the charges
including Tim Brink, former CEO of Continental Fuels. In a
final statement, Brink's lawyer said Pemex officials hooked him
up with the groups hijacking the condensate.
 Drug smugglers use the fuel to power their cars and planes
or sell it. Armed gangs menace pipeline inspectors and some
have even kidnapped Pemex workers, with 17 victims since 2005.
 While Pemex says it does not know the motives behind the
assaults, criminals could be using brute force to intimidate
workers into spilling privileged information.
 With new, sophisticated monitoring systems including
satellite tracking, closed-circuit cameras and gauges to
measure pressure changes in the oil ducts, Pemex managed to
slash fuel thefts by 66 percent between 2008 and 2010.
 But the number of criminal pipeline taps jumped 55 percent
in the same period as innovative thieves tried new techniques.
 "We often find illegal taps where there is one hose
stealing the fuel and another hose injecting water at the same
time so that the pressure variations are minimized," Pemex CEO
Juan Jose Suarez Coppel said last month.
 Illegal pipes known as "hot taps" are sometimes welded to
pipelines actively pumping gas and can cause massive explosions
if not connected with expertise.
 In December last year, oil spilling from a breached
pipeline burst into a fireball that killed 28 people and
destroyed homes and cars in the small town of San Martin
Texmelucan east of Mexico City. [ID:nN19172322]
 "Most people who know how to do this are in Pemex or are
former Pemex employees because it's a high-tech operation. A
guy off the street or your run-of-the-mill narco isn't going to
know," Houston-based energy analyst George Baker said.
 But not all the taps are top quality and some cruder
varieties could be set up by an ordinary plumber, said Juan
Bueno Torio, a senator from the oil-producing state of Veracruz
on Mexico's Gulf.
 Pemex sources asked about the 104 employees and contractors
involved in thefts could not say how many had been prosecuted,
but said a telephone hotline set up to place anonymous tips was
helping authorities react more quickly.
 "The company is getting more and more sophisticated
detecting the thefts," Bueno Torio said. "But then the rats are
always looking for new tricks."
 ($1=11.614 pesos)
 (Editing by Dale Hudson)

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