In a catchy photo op staged this past August, officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are pictured handing over a four foot-long government check for $2.4 million USD to Mexican finance ministry officials as recompense for shipments of stolen Mexican oil smuggled into Texas right under the noses of U.S. customs enforcement officers and sold to Trammo Petroleum, a Houston transnational with branch offices in China, Brazil, Egypt, France, the U.K., and Switzerland.
Part of the shipment of purloined petroleum was then sold off to a German BASF subsidiary in Port Arthur for $2.4 million. According to the New York Times, the deal was brokered by one Josh Crescenzi, Rio Grande Valley supervisor for Continental Fuels and a bundler for former Texas oilman George Bush during his 2004 election campaign who is now in a federal protected witness program. Trammo CEO Donald Schroeder has pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and will be sentenced in December.
The Texas case is, in fact, the tip of a sinkhole that involves tens of millions of barrels of stolen Mexican oil worth billions of greenback dollar bills, U.S. customs enforcement, corrupt oil union officials, dozens of mysteriously “disappeared” oil workers, and a dread drug cartel.
Mexican authorities calculate that more than 2,000,000 barrels are stolen from PEMEX, the national petroleum monopoly, each year by workers, company insiders, and organized crime. A 2007 New York Times investigation estimated that a billion dollars worth of Mexican oil was being siphoned from PEMEX annually through fraud, theft, and clandestine “tomas” (“takes”) drilled into company pipelines. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel allegedly wound up in the tanks of drug cartel jets carrying cocaine in from Colombia for transshipment to the U.S.
PEMEX numbers (questionable at best) reveal that more than 1.5 million barrels were sucked out of the oil giant’s pipelines in the first nine months of 2009 alone. A Mexican government investigation into one network of oil thieves operating in the Burgos sector along the border in Coahuila and neighboring Nuevo Leon states yielded 740,000 pesos in cold, hard cash and evidence of $46,000,000 USD in stolen oil sales, presumably to U.S. buyers.
The modus operandi of the petrol pirates is simplicity itself: “chupaductos” (“duct suckers”) are attached to perforated pipelines and the oil pumped into tanker trucks or “pipas” that sometimes bear the PEMEX logo. Pipa drivers are provided with phony documentation from the Mexican Environmental Secretariat (SEMARNAP) attesting that the contents of the loads they are moving are liquid petroleum waste – the documentation is apparently good enough to satisfy the curiosities of U.S. customs inspectors.
Some of the stolen crude is processed at clandestine refineries into gasoline that is sold in both Mexico and the U.S. Gas stations in central Mexico, particularly in Puebla state, are ready customers for the hot oil if a recent article in the daily El Universal is to be believed. Major trucking and bus companies buy the purloined gasoline without any questions asked. A May 16th, 2008 raid by federal police agents at offices in Acolman, Mexico state resulted in the confiscation of documentation for dummy companies created to distribute the product.
PEMEX bulletins reported by El Universal establish that nearly half the stolen petroleum (48%) is sucked from pipelines that supply the country’s six major refineries – Mexico, which has limited refining capabilities, sends most of its crude to Texas to be converted into gasoline that is then re-imported for domestic use.
22% of the “tomas” are tapped from two oil ducts feeding the Hector Lara refinery in Cadareyta, a city of 75,000 in central Nuevo Leon. Local papers report that PEMEX has shut down 33 “takes” in the Cadareyta pipeline network so far this year, most recently this past August 30th along the national highway in San Juan, one of dozens of tiny communities that pertain to the municipality. The perforated duct measures 24 inches around which experts say translates to a lot of petroleum.
Who is stealing Cadareyta’s oil? One PEMEX investigation suggests the involvement of organized crime, most pertinently the Zetas, a ruthless band of narco traffickers, who began life as the dreaded enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. Noted for their expertise in beheading their rivals, the original Zetas were Mexican Army officials trained in drug war strategies at the Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Bored with protecting the interests of Osiel Cardenas, the Gulf Cartel capo who is now facing 30 years in the U.S. super-maxi penitentiary in Florence Colorado, the Zetas have gone into business for themselves and are now assigned full-blown cartel status by Mexican drug fighters. More than a dozen Zeta offshoots now operate throughout Mexico and the cartel is diversifying into extortion, kidnapping, pirate goods, and the sale of stolen oil.
With 2000 members, Section 49 of the Sindicato Mexicano de Petroleros de la Revolucion Mexicana (STPRM) which holds the contract for the Cadareyta refinery is notorious for corruption and gangsterism. Up until 2007, the section was controlled by ten brothers named Vega, disciples of STPRM boss Carlos Romero Deschamps. In fact, Hilario Vega, then in his third term as secretary general of Section 49, was considered Romero Deschamps’ heir apparent when leadership of the union devolves to northern sections of the STPRM in 2012. One ex-Cadayreta worker, Tony Cantu, interviewed by the New York Times’ Tim Weiner, testified that the Vegas were perfectly capable of killing dissidents to protect their concession – Cantu now lives in Houston. Hermen Macias, a Cadareyta newspaper editor who dared to cross the Vegas, claims he was repeatedly threatened with death before the union bosses began to mysteriously disappear.
The Vega brothers’ enterprise began to unravel some 30 months ago when, on May 16th 2007, David Vega, AKA “El Ganso” (“The Goose”) left a union meeting in high spirits with three fellow oil workers – the four reportedly had been plotting strike tactics if then-upcoming negotiations with the PEMEX refinery division fell through. But David Vega and his three companions never returned home. One unidentified eye-witness to their forced disappearance or “levanton” (“pick-up” in narco parlance) reported that the petroleros were waylaid by a commando of men dressed in black uniforms with no insignias and bullet-proof vests and carrying automatic weapons with grenades strapped to their belts – an outfit that fits the Zeta dress code – and spirited off in several large black cars.
The morning after the “levanton”, Hilario Vega, the long-time Section 49 boss, received a phone call instructing him to rendezvous with the kidnappers in the parking lot of a Cadareyta Wal-Mart mega-store if he wanted to see his brother alive again. According to his son Josue Vega, Hilario complied and was never seen again.
Some news stories suggest that there were over 100 “levantones” in Cadareyta in 2007 – the number is imprecise because many families failed to report the disappearances of their loved ones to the police who did not seem very interested in clearing up the cases anyway – if recent criminal enterprise is any teacher the cops may well have been involved in the crimes themselves. Although an unspecified number of kidnapping victims were eventually allowed to return home, leftist Mexican senator Rosario Ibarra, the founder of the EUREKA Mothers of the Disappeared group, holds a list of 38 refinery workers who remain missing. Ibarra, whose own son, Jesus, a member of the 23rd of September Communist League, was disappeared by government agents in 1976, is a native of nearby Monterrey.
The indifference of local authorities, state and federal prosecutors, Section 49, and the national leadership of the STPRM at the disappearances of 38 oil workers, has been nothing short of sensational. Despite a resolution of the Mexican Senate urged by Ibarra and calling for a thorough investigation, the Federal Prosecutors’ Office (PGR) insists it has no new information on the kidnappings and the investigation remains frozen in the cold case file. Even clues supplied by witnesses, such as the license numbers of vehicles used in the “levantones”, have evaporated, according to Hilario’s son Josue.
The younger Vega complains that, disillusioned by the PGR’s lethargy, he contracted a billboard near the Cadareyta airport to display photos of his father and other missing petroleros but the billboard company cancelled the contract on the pretext that it constituted “political advertisement.” Candidates of Mexico’s two most powerful parties, the PRI and the PAN, often advertise on billboards outside the Cadareyta airport.
Two and half years after the mystery “levantones”, Hilario Vega’s replacement as the interim secretary general of Section 49, Jose Izaguirre, has issued no public statement about his predecessor’s disappearance. Izaguirre, who is under federal investigation for selling refinery jobs, makes no bones about his candidacy to become permanent secretary general of the section.
The silence of accomplices extends to STPRM boss of all bosses Romero Deschamps who the surviving Vegas inevitably refer to as “Don Carlos.” “Don Carlos and my father were friends for life,” affirmed Josue Vega in a recent Internet interview.
Carlos Romero Deschamps succeeded the legendary STPRM czar Joaquin Hernandez Galicia in 1989 after the omni-powerful “La Quina” was arrested and stripped of office on orders from then-president Carlos Salinas in a murderous raid on Hernandez Galicia’s stronghold in Ciudad Madero Tamaulipas state – the body of a police agent freshly gunned down in Ciudad Juarez was purportedly flown into Madero so that La Quina could be charged with murder.
Hernandez Galicia had incurred the now-reviled ex-president’s wrath by endorsing leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of Lazaro Cardenas who nationalized Mexico’s oil industry back in the 1930s, from whom Salinas embezzled the 1988 presidential election. La Quina reportedly opposed Salinas’s plans to re-privatize PEMEX and also had financed a slim volume “A Killer In Los Pinos” (the Mexican White House) that revealed how Carlos and his black sheep brother Raul shot and killed an Indian servant during a childhood game of Cowboys & Indians.
Carlos Romero Deschamps is a veteran mover and shaker in the ranks of the once-and-future ruling PRI party that after 71 years in power was finally deposed in the 2000 presidential elections by Vicente Fox’s rightist PAN party. In a doomed scheme to stymie Fox’s bid, the STPRM was used as a pipeline to funnel $110,000,000 USD in illegal contributions from PEMEX operating funds into the campaign coffers of losing PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, the so-called PEMEXgate scandal. Although PEMEX director Rogelio Montemayor was forced to flee Mexico to escape prosecution for the scandal, Romero Deschamps, then a PRI senator, enjoyed immunity that exempted him from prosecution (the “fuero”) because he was a member of congress.
The PAN’s unexpected triumph in 2000 taught Romero Deschamps which side of the coin the money was posted on and he soon closed ranks with Fox’s successor Felipe Calderon in his designs to re-privatize PEMEX. During 45 Senate debates on Calderon’s privatization bill, Romero Deschamps was a perpetual no-show despite the key role played by the STPRM in the nationalization process – a strike by petroleros against the transnational “Seven Sisters” that then controlled Caribbean oil fields resulted in Cardenas’s expropriation and nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum industry in 1938. PEMEX was created soon after.
Both PEMEX and the STPRM soon fell under the control of the PRI from whose ranks corrupt union leadership emerged. By the oil boom and bust of 1976-82, corruption had become institutionalized and with 90,000 dues-paying members (and another 30,000 contract workers), the union has long been a PRI cash cow.
Like La Quina, Romero Deschamps is not reluctant to send in muscle to silence detractors. As recently as early October, “Don Carlos” dispatched his goons to attack dissident petroleros peacefully protesting outside the STPRM’s Mexico City headquarters. Rivals disappear – the suspected fate of the Cadareyta workers is a case in point – and some suffer an overdose of lead.
Despite plunging PEMEX revenues as major offshore oilfields like Cantarell play out, Romero Deschamps and his cronies continue to be handsomely rewarded by the Calderon regime for their “cooperation.” For years, investigators have sought to determine the dimensions of the pay-offs with which PEMEX buys the STPRM’s allegiances. Recent revelations by the Federal Institute for the Freedom of Information (IFAI) indicate that between 2005 and 2007, management gifted Romero Deschamps and the union’s executive board with over a billion pesos – 1,273,588,029 of them to be exact. In 2007 alone, the oil union boss received 139 million pesos for “expenses”. 75 million were issued for two STPRM “fiestas” and 532 million for “travel.” Although the destination of these trips was not spelled out, Romero Deschamps, like his predecessor La Quina, seems to spend more time at the craps tables in Las Vegas than he does at STPRM headquarters.
JOHN ROSS will present his latest cult classic “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” (“a lusty corrido about a great betrayed city” – Mike Davis) at Modern Times, 888 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s La Mision this Wednesday November 18th at 7 PM. The masses are cordially invited. Ross is scouting venues in the mid-west, south, and east coast for his winter-spring 2010 Monster Tour – write him at email@example.com with ideas.