MEXICO CITY — U.S. refineries bought millions of dollars worth of oil stolen from Mexican government pipelines and smuggled it across the border, the U.S. Justice Department told the Associated Press — illegal operations now led by Mexican drug cartels expanding their reach.
Criminals — mostly drug gangs — tap remote pipelines, sometimes building pipelines of their own, to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil each year, the Mexican oil monopoly said. At least one U.S. oil executive has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in such a deal.
Today, the U.S. Homeland Security department is scheduled to return $2.4 million to Mexico's tax administration, the first batch of money seized during a binational investigation into smuggled oil. More arrests and seizures are expected.
"The United States is working with the Mexican government on the theft of oil," said Nancy Herrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Houston. "It's an ongoing investigation, with one indictment so far."
In that case, Donald Schroeder, president of Trammo Petroleum in Houston, is scheduled to be sentenced in December after pleading guilty in May.
In a $2 million scheme, Herrera said, Schroeder bought stolen Mexican oil that had been brought across the border in trucks and barges and sold it to unidentified U.S. refineries. Trammo made about $150,000 in the scheme, she said.
Schroeder' and his attorneys declined comment in an e-mail.
Mexico's police commissioner Rodrigo Esparza said the Zetas, a fierce drug gang aligned with the Gulf cartel, have used false import documents to smuggle at least $46 million worth of oil in tankers to unnamed U.S. refineries.
Mexico froze 149 bank accounts this year in connection with that crime, which continues at a record rate, according to Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, Mexico's state oil monopoly.
The thefts are a devastating blow to Pemex, which saw production fall 7.5 percent in the first half of the year. Pemex is aware of 190 thefts so far this year, up 10 percent from last year.