MEXICO CITY – The governor of the central Mexican state of Puebla announced on Friday the deployment of an additional 2,000 army troops to his jurisdiction in a crackdown on gangs who tap into pipelines to steal fuel.
Clashes earlier this week in Puebla between fuel thieves and soldiers left 10 dead.
“Around 2,000 military elements” arrived in Puebla on Friday, joining 400 troops who took up positions in the state the day before, Gov. Antonio Gali told Televisa television.
The soldiers were accompanied by helicopters and tanks, he said.
The violence that prompted the army to send reinforcements took place Wednesday night in the village of Palmarito, where troops responded to reports about pipeline theft.
As the soldiers arrived, they came under fire at a distance “from a group of individuals who hid behind a group of women and children,” making it impossible for the troops to return fire, the National Defense Secretariat said in a statement.
Two soldiers were killed and another was wounded.
Two hours later, troops encountered the fuel thieves traveling in five SUVs without the benefit of human shields. This time, when the gunmen started shooting, the soldiers shot back.
The battle left two troops and six gunmen dead, while nine other soldiers and two attackers were wounded.
Puebla’s governor said Friday that authorities need to apprehend the leaders of the fuel thieves, known as huachicoleros, as well as to pursue a dialogue “with the families so they stop supporting the criminals.”
“We are going to respond, to stop these bands,” Gali said, recalling that a senior member of one huachicolero gang has been arrested.
He accused the huachicoleros operating in Puebla’s Red Triangle region of “tearing apart the social fabric” by making area residents – including children – complicit in their criminal activity.
The gangs reportedly pay people 12,000 pesos ($632) a month to act as lookouts.
Members of the security forces and officials of the Education Secretariat are visiting homes and schools in the Red Triangle “to make these families aware of the crime they are committing,” the governor said.
Theft of fuel from pipelines for sale on the black market costs Mexico some $5 billion a year, according to state oil company Pemex.