Pirates and hold-ups: crime strikes Venezuela's oil industry
By Alexandra Ulmer
MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) - When night falls over western Venezuela, armed gangs known as "pirates" sometimes ride boats into muggy Lake Maracaibo to steal equipment from oil wells.
In the country's Paraguana peninsula, opposite the Caribbean island of Aruba, slum dwellers at times break through a perimeter wall into Venezuela's biggest refinery and rob machinery, construction tools, and cables to sell as scrap.
On the other side of the OPEC country in Monagas state, around 26,000 potential barrels were lost in March during a shutdown after state oil company employees and contractors stole copper cables and caused a tank to overflow.
Venezuela's national crime pandemic - the United Nations says the country has the world's second-highest murder rate after Honduras - is a growing headache for the oil industry, which accounts for nearly all of the country's export revenues.
Hold-ups and thefts in the sector are on the rise, taking a toll on output, according to interviews with around 40 people, including oil workers, union leaders, foreign executives, opposition politicians, scrap dealers, and people who live near oil installations.
Shortages of spare parts or the prospect of further theft stymie replacements of the stolen items, forcing some wells to function at partial capacity or at times even shut down, the people said.
"The scrap seekers are uncontrollable," said National Guard Lieutenant Lenin Oscan, who helps oversee security at the northern Paraguana's 645,000 barrel-per-day Amuay refinery where, he added, 20-30 people sometimes sneak in at once.
"Any day now they could commit irreparable harm to the refinery," added Osuna, speaking in a barracks next to Amuay as he leafed through a thick folder documenting criminal incidents. Continued...