MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday the country loses $2.5 to $3.5 billion annually to fuel thieves who drill illegal taps into government pipelines.
Lopez Obrador said "there still isn't an exact figure" on the losses. The state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company hasn't given out new figures on pipeline taps since September; that last report indicated that 11,240 taps were found in the first nine months of 2018, or about 41 per day.
The illicit fuel-theft industry involves not just drilling taps, but bribing or threatening oil company employees, stealing tank trucks to carry the fuel and turf battles between rival gangs.
That has caused a surge in the number of homicides in states like Guanajuato, where fuel theft is rampant.
Lopez Obrador promised to enact legislation with stiffer punishments for the crime.
"Fuel theft will become a felony, and that means there will be no right to bail," he said at a news conference. "In the case of fuel theft, that applies to those who extract it and those who distribute it."
Fuel theft often involves gangs that recruit entire neighborhoods to act as lookouts or to block military or police incursions in impoverished towns that make much of their living off fuel theft.
And when illegal taps leak fuel, townspeople often gather to scoop up the gasoline or diesel in buckets.
Given the unconventional, community-based nature of the crime, Lopez Obrador also pledged unconventional means to combat it: He said he would print up copies of a 1944 government tract on ethics and civics and send it to families.
"I am going to send to the elderly people so they can help us, by guiding the whole family, talking to their grandchildren about the importance of upholding principles, ideals and values," he said.
Lopez Obrador said he would also try to enlist criminals' mothers to discourage the practice.
"I have spoken about asking mothers to help us with their sons," Lopez Obrador said. "Mothers love their children a lot, and a mother is never going to accept that their child has committed a crime."
"So we are asking them all to help us, by advising young people not to fall into the temptation of crime."