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Fuel theft: a democratic crime

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Alejandro Hope
Source: El Daily Post

Not just criminals. Very good piece from the Associated Press, reprinted here at El Daily Post, on the dynamics of fuel theft in small rural communities in central Mexico. The gist: it’s not only seasoned criminals who are tapping the pipelines to steal diesel. Dozens of otherwise law-abiding citizens are getting into the game: “Alejandro Espejel, the spokesman for the city of Calpulalpan, said people in several villages have made a habit of either perforating pipelines or taking advantage of taps created by professional fuel thieves. They have broken through security perimeters on almost two dozen occasions in the last year, built dams to create diesel containment ponds and hauled up fuel by the bucketful to sell. Espejel said the villagers have defied orders by police and security authorities to stop the practice…In a video of one mass fuel theft posted by the newspaper Sol de Tlaxcala during the week, dozens of people can be seen in a festive atmosphere gathered around the banks of a narrow gully, tossing buckets down into a swimming-pool sized pond of diesel, and pulling the full buckets back up with a rope. The villagers can then be seen carrying the buckets up a muddy slope on their shoulders, to fill a larger container.”

Mass disobedience. What explains this trend? Here’s a tentative explanation:

1. Mark Kleiman, a distinguished professor of crime and drug policy at New York University, has a very good concept to explain phenomena such as this fuel theft epidemic in Tlaxcala. It’s called enforcement swamping. Here’s a definition: “If enforcement resources are constrained, the expected value of the penalty facing potential violators falls as the frequency of violation rises. Thus trends in rule-breaking will tend to be self-reinforcing.” Translation: if four people tap pipelines and law enforcement is equipped to catch and prosecute two, there’s a 50% chance of spending some time in jail for any given fuel thief. Not many people will try it. But now add a fifth individual. The likelihood of punishment falls to 40%. More people will be tempted. Add a sixth individual. Chances of punishment are down to a third. The more people get into the game, the less likely punishment becomes for any given individual and that brings more rule-breakers. And so on and so forth. At the extreme (as in Tlaxcala) whole communities.

2. So how do you deal with a phenomenon like that? Well, you could try to bring in more law enforcement resources: more police officers, more security cameras, higher fences, etc. Ultimately, you could restore order by throwing everything you have at the problem. But that is an expensive proposition and it can take a long while to marshal the necessary money and will to do it. The Mexican government has been trying that route to deal with fuel theft for several years, with no victory in sight.

3. So what else can be done? Maybe what is called a dynamic (or focused) deterrence strategy. You focus your resources on a specific geographic area or subset of offenders (and loudly inform everyone about your priority). For instance, the authorities could announce that they would only arrest the first 100 individuals stealing diesel on a specific date (and then deploy sufficient resources to make that limited threat credible). So now everyone wants to be the 101st fuel thief. And thus many wait patiently for others to get caught. But if a sufficient number wait, you never get to the threshold and thus people keep waiting. Similarly, you could do it with a small stretch of pipelines: the authorities announce that anyone trying to steal fuel in that area would be arrested. So now no one tries to steal in that specific stretch, which frees resources to cover other areas, allowing the secure stretch to grow over time.

Bottom line. Once whole communities are involved in a specific crime (fuel theft in this instance), the government cannot arrest its way out of the problem. Brute force will simply not do. What it needs is smart, strategic, and creative interventions, not more boots on the ground (because there are simply not enough to go around).

This and that

A positive surprise. Good news on the Guerrero mass abduction case we discussed here at Silver or Lead last Friday. Twenty-one out of the 22 kidnapping victims were released unharmed. Details here.

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Things to look for

Wednesday is the first big numbers day. The government will release the final 2015 crime numbers. One thing is certain: there were more homicides last year than in 2014. How many more? We’ll keep you posted.

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