Cocaine smuggling and gun running may be the traditional vocations of Mexico's cartels, but criminal activity in the energy sector is on the rise, leaving oil majors weighing the risks of venturing into a country that is now ripe for foreign investment.
Mexican oil has been opened up to global firms after a 76-year monopoly by state-owned petroleum firm Pemex. The country is the world's tenth-biggest producer of the commodity, according to the International Energy Agency, and will begin to auction off its resources from the beginning of next year, with eager majors already signing non-commercial "cooperation" agreements with Pemex.
ExxonMobil, Malaysia's Petronas, India's OGNC and Argentina's YPF are four companies that have recently inked deals to explore business opportunities in the country, but 154 oil companies from 34 countries were present at an industry conference on the beaches of Cancun in September.
'Rich, violent, immoral'
Pemex hopes that the industry reforms - signed into law by President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2014 - will bring in $80 billion annually. The excitement for Mexico and the oil majors is clear - but anxiety is just as evident.
Criminal organizations are likely to capitalize on the developments by stealing – and selling – the oil, according to Juan Carlos Boué, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and a former employee of the international trading arm of Pemex.
Pipeline tapping is "prevalent" in Mexico, he said last week, speaking at an event at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. He also highlighted anecdotal evidence that suggested criminals park tankers in the middle of the oil fields and force government employees to fill them up.
"Compliance tends to be absolute for very good reasons," Boué added.
Pemex statistics, given at the IISS meeting, revealed that criminal groups stole over $1 billion in hydrocarbon resources during 2012 and 2013. They also showed that illegal taps into state-owned pipelines had increased by one third over the year to date, compared to the same period last year, with total losses of around $1 billion.
"For a criminal organization this is a huge business...it has become a huge side business for the drug cartels," said Gustavo Mohar, CEO of risk analysis firm Grupo Atalaya, which is based in Mexico City. "They are not motivated by political things, ideological things, it's simply money… Rich, violent, immoral, without limits."