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Stolen Gasoline Is Smuggled All Over The World, U.N. Says


Mexico's criminal gangs have turned their expertise at smuggling illegal goods to smuggling a legal one. The gangs move drugs and weapons and also, apparently, gasoline. Here's Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: The Mexican government says it lost about $3.5 billion to stolen gasoline last year. That's $9 million a day. There, drug cartels are tapping gasoline pipelines and stealing gas straight from oil refineries. So the new president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, decided to cut the cartels off from gasoline.

MANUEL MOLANO: He is a fearless man. I have to give him that. He's really fearless.

GONZALEZ: This is Manuel Molano. He's an economist in Mexico with the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. The president of Mexico shut down the gasoline pipelines that run through the country. So even if the cartels punched a hole in one, there'd be no gas in there for them to steal. And he sent the military to guard the refineries. This is when a message written on a blanket appeared hanging off a bridge in the state of Guanajuato.

MOLANO: This is what we usually call a narcomanta.

GONZALEZ: A drug trafficker's blanket.

MOLANO: They usually send messages like this.

GONZALEZ: They write messages on blankets.

MOLANO: Yes. And they hang them in cities with very foul language and terrible spelling.

GONZALEZ: This blanket said, president of Mexico, get your military and federal police out of this state, away from the refinery. If not, I'm going to start killing innocent people. It was signed by a wanted criminal called El Marro - The Hammer. Stealing gasoline is so lucrative that Ian Ralby says it's happening in almost every country. Ralby fights maritime fuel smuggling for the United Nations, which basically means he fights pirates.

IAN RALBY: (Laughter) I would say, yes. I fight pirates, smugglers, traffickers and thieves.

GONZALEZ: Ralby says one of Mexico's most notorious drug cartels is selling stolen gas to other countries. They have fake export certificates and an entire fleet of ships in the sea.

RALBY: They have tankers. They have supply vessels. They have support vessels.

GONZALEZ: How can you sell stolen fuel smuggled out of Mexico to, like, Thailand?

RALBY: Well, if you - you probably wouldn't sell it to Thailand because they're smuggling it in via fishing boats from Malaysia and then selling it in Coke bottles on the street. So Thailand's got its own dynamic.

GONZALEZ: Criminals are incredibly creative. Ralby says governments who are trying to prevent fuel theft have to constantly change their strategy. Take Morocco and Algeria. The two countries have a closed border. People cannot cross the border at all, but donkeys can.

RALBY: And as a result, donkeys have been taking, overnight, jerrycans with Algerian fuel across the border into Morocco for years.

GONZALEZ: Like, trained donkeys traveling alone through the mountains.

RALBY: And if you think that's just a small-scale thing, the total adds up to about $2 billion a year - by donkey in jerrycans.

GONZALEZ: In Mexico, Molano says more gasoline is now getting to gas stations by tanker trucks instead of pipeline.

MOLANO: The best way to move liquids is through a pipe - the cheapest way.

GONZALEZ: It costs 14 times more to move gas by truck, according to the Mexican government. And Molano says cartels can steal a truck filled with gasoline too. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOBACCO'S "PINK GOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez is the multimedia education reporter for WLRN's StateImpact Florida project. She comes from NPR in D.C. where she was a national desk reporter, web and show producer as an NPR Kroc Fellow. The San Diego native has worked as a reporter and producer for KPBS in San Diego and KALW in San Francisco, covering under-reported issues like youth violence, food insecurity and public education. Her work has been awarded an SPJ Sigma Delta Chi and regional Edward R. Murrow awards. She graduated from Mills College in 2009 with a bachelorâ
Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.