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News Article

Fuel Theft Kingpin, El Marro, Captured by Mexican Forces

By Peter Appleby | Mon, 08/03/2020 - 16:15

On Sunday, Mexican special forces captured the fuel theft kingpin and cartel leader José Antonio Yépez, AKA El Marro, in a blow against stolen fuel trade and the wider black economy.

El Marro, leader of the powerful Guanajuato-based Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, has grown in notoriety in the last few years, taking up a central role in the region's rocketing crime rates to become one of Mexico’s most wanted criminals.

Murders in Guanajuato almost doubled between June 2019 and January 2020 according to the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System, (SESNSP) as a conflict between El Marro’s Santa Rosa de Lima cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the group suspected to be behind the attempted assassination of Mexico City’s Chief of Police Omar García Harfuch in June, escalated. On average, there have been 12.7 murders a day in the state between January and May this year, SESNSP reports.

Aside from the violence, the country’s oil industry has also suffered. As the leader of the country’s premier huachicol cartel, El Marro was at the forefront of the clandestine robbery and trade of stolen oil and gasoline that has cost the country at least MX$147 billion (approximately US$6.5 billion) over the last four years. PEMEX’s most recent data on oil theft shows that there were 12,581 instances of theft from pipelines in 2018 alone, with the majority taking place in Puebla (1,815 instances), Hidalgo (1,726 instances) and Guanajuato (1,547 instances).

In the first few months of his presidency, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador temporarily closed some of Mexico’s major pipelines and tightened security at strategic locations as fuel theft problems grew. One major event was the January 2019 Tlahuelilpan pipeline explosion in the State of Hidalgo that claimed 137 lives. The shutdown resulted in a 30 percent reduction in theft between December 2018 and September 2019. Nevertheless, it also caused fuel shortages in the north of the country with around 70 percent of gas stations in Guadalajara running out of gas between January and February.

ONEXPO National President Roberto Díaz de León told Mexico Business News in January that the association applauded the government’s attempt to curb the theft issue. “It is necessary to combat huachicol because, frankly, it is our main competitor,” he said. De León explained that regardless of the illegality, gas stations are the main points through which stolen fuel is sold, supported by a system of illegal stations.

“This clandestine network operates through a category of distributors and establishments known as cachimba, found on roadsides all over the country. For every gas station, there are at least four cachimbas. If there are at least 13,000 gas stations across the country, then you can see that we are talking about a serious distribution web,” he said.  

El Marro had confronted the Mexican state in response to President López Obrador’s anti-theft drive. In January 2019, a van containing an apparent explosive device was left at the entrance to PEMEX’s Salamanca refinery in Guanajuato. In the van was a blanket with a letter, addressed to the Mexican president and signed by José Antonio Yépez, which read: “President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, I demand that you get the Navy, SEDENA, Gendarmerie and federal forces out of the state. If not, I am going to start killing you along with innocent people so they see that this is not a game and that Guanajuato does not need them,” Reforma reported.

At the start of June, federal and state forces arrested El Marro’s mother. Violence broke out in Guanajuato as a result and, according to El Financiero, the Salamanca refinery was once again targeted. Minister of National Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval told the media that an armed group “assaulted” the refinery and that 12 explosive devices were found inside the vehicle the group abandoned.

Though El Marro’s capture has dealt a blow to the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel and armed groups involved in fuel theft, Mexico’s experience during its “war on drugs” will serve as a cautionary note. While the capture of leaders has often caused a temporary suspension of crime and hostility, it is usually followed by a serious increase in splinter factions that fight over control of the region. As another group consolidates control, crime rises once again. The government must be wary of a spike in fuel theft in the future if El Marro’s arrest is to be considered a lasting success.

Photo by:   IEnova
Peter Appleby Peter Appleby Journalist and Industry Analyst