In 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.
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