MALTRATA, Mexico — Drug traffickers employing high-tech drills, miles of rubber hose and a fleet of stolen tanker trucks have siphoned more than $1 billion worth of oil from Mexico's pipelines over the past two years, in a vast and audacious conspiracy that is bleeding the national treasury, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials and the state-run oil company.
Using sophisticated smuggling networks, the traffickers have transported a portion of the pilfered petroleum across the border to sell to U.S. companies, some of which knew that it was stolen, according to court documents and interviews with American officials involved in an expanding investigation of oil services firms in Texas.
The widespread theft of Mexico's most vital national resource by criminal organizations represents a costly new front in President Felipe Calderon's war against the drug cartels, and it shows how the traffickers are rapidly evolving from traditional narcotics smuggling.
Oil theft has been a persistent problem for the state-run Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, but the robberies increased sharply after Calderon launched his war against the cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006. Authorities said they have traced much of the oil rustling to the Zetas, a criminal organization founded by former military commandos. Although the Zetas initially served as a protection arm of the powerful Gulf cartel, they now call their own shots and dominate criminal enterprise in the oil-rich states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
"The Zetas are a parallel government," said Eduardo Mendoza Arellano, a federal lawmaker who heads a national committee on energy. "They practically own vast stretches of the pipelines, from the highway to the very door of the oil companies."