Samuel León Sáez (MPhil, 2017-19) offers a summary of his thesis on the ‘new criminal market in Mexico’

My MPhil thesis (‘The New Criminal Market: Explaining the Growth of Mexico´s Fuel Trafficking Phenomenon’) explores the origins and growth of a new black market that has positioned itself as one of the most important criminal enterprises in Mexico: fuel theft and trafficking. Since 2011 fuel trafficking in Mexico started growing at an uncontrollable rate. Between 2013 – 2018 more that 100 million barrels were stolen from Petróleos Mexicanos´ refineries, storage and distribution terminals and pipelines[1].  According to the Mexican federal government in the period among 2016 and 2018 the economic losses for the Mexican state amounted to $7.5 billion dollars, almost the total cost of the new refinery to be built by the Obrador administration. What these figures reflect is that fuel theft and trafficking has become the main black market for Mexico´s criminal networks, overtaking other criminal enterprises like human trafficking or drug smuggling in importance. Official documents and journalistic accounts point out to the existence of three types of criminal actors in Mexico´s fuel theft market: large criminal macro-networks, specialized criminal networks and criminal gangs. They vary in their capabilities and objectives, which differ based on their level of organization and internal cohesion; their territorial operational capacity, use of violence, weaponry, possession of professional equipment for fuel extraction, access to specialized vehicles and whether or not they are involved in other criminal endeavours. My research aims to explain how this black market began and develop the factors that sustained its recent explosive growth which are:


Co-option of authorities and other grey actors: PEMEX workers, officials and businessmen.

The sustained increase that hydrocarbon prices have shown in Mexico for more than a decade.

Fragmentation of criminal networks and illicit market diversification.


The objective of my research is to explain how these variables jointly contributed to making fuel theft and trafficking one of the prevalent criminal markets in Mexico.


[1] Octavio Romero, Director General of PEMEX. Presidential Press Conference of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. January 14, 2018.