22 | ENE | 2020
How Mexico’s anti-fuel theft squads are closing illegal taps
In 2017 alone, according to data from Pemex, a total of 1,064 illegal fuel taps were identified in the state of Hidalgo - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

How Mexico’s anti-fuel theft squads are closing illegal taps

Ricardo Moya y Alicia Pereda
Mexico City
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Pemex supervisors, helpers, and welders in the state of Hidalgo work day and night at Pemex pipelines

The smell of gasoline fills the lungs and lingers on hands, clothes, and soil. As the sun goes down, a squad made up of 12 men digs in search of an illegal tap in a Pemex pipeline at a field in Juandhó, Hidalgo.

According to Alfonso, a Pemex operator who preferred not to give his last name for security reasons, most illegal taps are happening in the state of Hidalgo.

In 2017 alone, according to data from Pemex, a total of 1,064 illegal fuel taps were identified in the state, whereas 1,050 were found during the first half of 2018.

Pemex supervisors, helpers, and welders share a same universe in which closing illegal taps and repairing leaks entails significant risks due to their exposure to flammable material and the possibility of being attacked by fuel thieves.

We are usually escorted by members of the army or Pemex security. It is a complicated situation and there are times when fuel thieves even hold us at gunpoint,” said Alejandro, another member of the anti-fuel theft squad.

According to Alfonso, who leads a team at the Tula-Salamanca pipeline, the same one that exploded in Tlahuelilpan on January 18, there are around 18 squads working day and night to keep fuel theft under control.

Alfonso’s team works under the fertile ground of an alfalfa field, where two illegal taps have just been closed.

According to members of the anti-fuel theft squad, one need only connect a pressure hose to steal around 220 gallons of gas in five minutes’ time. The “profits” can be even higher if thieves use a hose that is 1.5 to 2 inches wide.

In order to detect illegal taps, Pemex uses a hi-tech monitoring system that provides the exact coordinates of the tap. A fuel theft GPS of sorts.

“10 years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to find a tap such as this. Today, it is very common,” said Alfonso.

Alejandro commented that each tap requires a different procedure. If there are no leaks, the squad has to locate and cancel the area. “In turn, if we need to conduct an elimination, we have to control the leak first.”

“This procedure is harder, but we’re used to it by now. There are times when there are gasoline jets coming out of the pipes or even fires,” he stated.

These taps usually break because of the low quality of the materials used to steal fuel. The thieves use water hoses and old pipes, as well as cheap welding and valves, which causes ruptures in the tap.

The next step consists of ensuring that there are no fuel remains left in the area.

With a blowtorch of sorts, a member of the squad has to ensure that the area surrounding the illegal tap is danger-free, since a minimum spark in the wrong place can cause a tragedy. After said verification process comes an ultrasonic inspection to measure the pipeline girth and avoid welding over a sensitive area.

In order to conduct this ultrasound, the team has to remove the dirt that surrounds the pipeline and use water and glycerine for inspection.

Finally, the team places a steel hood over the tap to prevent further drillings.

“There are times when we lay up to three hoods of the same size in a single tap, but thieves continue to try and pierce through it,” told Alejandro while his colleagues sealed the pipeline, wrapped in darkness.

“I wish the soldiers hadn’t left,” they commented.


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