On January 18, hundreds of citizens from the Mexican state of Hidalgo congregated around an altered gas line for what they thought could be “free gas.” In the state of Hidalgo, more than 50% of the population lives below the poverty line – having gas in here is a privilege.
Around 600 people congregated around this pipeline, unknowingly, more than one hundred of them would die because of an explosion of mysterious origins.
That day in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo, families were broken, kids disappeared, men and women alike were burnt to death by the explosion. But the most worrying thing about this is that it is not the first time that people die trying to get gas to make a living out of it. And is definitely not going to be the last time.
Mexico has been experimenting with a very difficult environment since Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) won the elections in December of 2018. Since he rose to power, he has been dealing with problems that were ignored by the “old regime.” The high obesity ratio, people disappearing, corruption in all levels, sketchy activities by the Mexican version of the CIA (called CISEN) are some of the main problems the new government is trying to tackle. But one of the most serious problems afflicting Mexico is known as the “huachicol.”
What is Huachicol?
Aka as gas stealing, the word huachicol comes from Latin “aquati” that means “to make soft.” In the 19th century, tequila producers put water in tequila to make it last longer, and putting water on it made it softer. This weird term later jumped to gas stealing as thieves started stealing it and changing it with water. Even when this phenomenon has been affecting Mexico for a long time, in the last six years it increased by 700%. This is due to the increasing prices of legal gas and the lack of effort to stop these “huachicoles” from stealing.
What was at the beginning a casual, small business in the towns throughout the Mexican mountains, soon turned into a nationwide business. With around 40 thousand “gas fountains” throughout the country, the Mexican government spent around three billion dollars only to replace the stolen gas.
How does it work?
Step 1: Find Workers
As y’all can tell, the gas stealing business is not the safest or legal thing to do. Why would people risk their lives to get some gas? The answer is easy: Narcos.
Narcos can’t just go to the regular gas station to fill their trucks, so they hire people to steal gas straight from the pipelines. These people are not with the cartels but they are regular poor people. Narcos buy the gas they steal (without paying taxes) and the so-called “huachicoleros” (people who do the huachicol) earn enough money to have three meals and maybe buy their kids’ school material. Win-win right? The poor get enough money to eat and the Narcos don’t lose personal when the pipelines explode.
Step 2: Find Bigger Buyers
Narcos are known for their capacity to make a business out of the tragedy and corruption of others. They not only keep this gas but they sell it to bigger businesses. For example, the new (now canceled) international airport in Mexico City was guilty of using this type of gas. They sell the gas at a low price, and the people responsible for the construction save money that they can spend on personal stuff. Like you know, necessary stuff like private planes and houses in Miami. Win-win again!
Step 3: Bribing (?)
Since they were already supplying government-related projects, bribing is unnecessary. You only have to pay your workers a little bit over five dollars a day and then sell the product to millionaire projects. Amazing right?
Step 4: Destroying the National Economy
Mexico’s exports are based on the extraction of petroleum. Mexico extracts it, sells it to US or Canada, and then buys the gas from them. Mexico doesn’t have the infrastructure to produce their own gas. As I said in the earlier steps, the government did nothing to stop these crimes from happening. The government had to pay for the missing gas with tax money. If this wasn’t infuriating, Peña Nieto’s government (2012-2018) almost doubled the price of gas in six years. This inflated the prices of public transportation, which also nearly doubled in price (from three pesos to five pesos). The average Mexican (who earns around 4-5 dollars per day) now has one more thing to worry about. Even worse, at the end of his term he demanded that the Mexican people thanked him for his incredible job of “fighting the gas inflation…” for real, I’m not kidding.
How was it discovered? What is the government doing about it?
One of the proposals of AMLO was to reduce the prices of gas. While doing this, he discovered that there were more than forty-thousand illegal pipe alterations.
The government had two different approaches to this: 1. Closing these modified pipelines 2. Prevent the huachicol
1: Closing Pipelines
Most of the gas delivered to the central and southern states of Mexico are delivered by pipes. To close this pipelines, the government had to close the whole system. By this I mean that they had to stop the flow of gas through the country, making gas scarce in 31 out of the 32 states. This caused huge problems because Mexico is only prepared for a three-day gas shutdown, and the gas was shut down way longer. The inability to move things around affected import and export businesses, grocery stores and regular life all throughout Mexico. The efforts may affect the economy in the short run, but in the first month of the implementation of the project, the government already saved around four billion pesos (20 million dollars). People have complained a lot about this without thinking about future rewards. This being billions of Mexican pesos that can be spent on actual problems like fighting poverty (43% of the Mexican population).
2: Prevent the Huachicol
The government has taken a way more controversial approach to this. AMLO is trying to cut the huachicol from the root, this root being poverty of course. AMLO is trying to implement scholarships and social security programs in the states where huachicol is persistent. These social programs vary from giving 400 dls a month (the minimum wage being 600 dls a month) to people who study to providing new job opportunities. On one hand, you have the people who support this idea. These people understand that huachicol may have been the only way these people had to have the chance to make a living wage and get out of poverty. On the other side, you have the people who know this fact but think that there are always other options to get out of poverty. They demand that the huachicoleros should be identified and put into jail and/or fined.
Both sides of the spectrum have very valid reasons. It is well known that poverty pushes people to extremes, but is it justified? Most of the Mexican people in big cities live humble lives making close to minimum wage and do not commit crimes. But we have to consider that life in the city is way easier than life in the countryside. The main reason being Narcos manipulating low-income families to do their dirty work.
So, What’s Next?
Mexico is in a really weird spot right now. It has the second highest GDP per capita in Latin America, at the same time it is one of the most corrupt countries of the continent. The road to change is a really difficult one. This can be especially extenuating if you have to modify a whole political system like AMLO is doing. No one knows if AMLO is going to turn things around for good or if he is just turning things for his own benefit. I guess only the time will tell.