Over a week ago, the state of Michoacán was subjected to several attacks on Pemex and CFE installations; a total of 24 gas stations and electrical installations in towns like Uruapan, Zamora and Apatzingán were targeted with Molotov cocktails and gunfire. No one was hurt, but 420,00 energy consumers were affected; the attacks resulted in a dramatic increase in security around energy facilities across the country. Authorities have declared that the attacks were perpetrated by organized crime as a result of conflicts with groups known as the “autodefensas” (“self-defenses”), local vigilantes starting their own war against the cartels. Could these attacks be referred to as instances of terrorism? Curiously enough, it would not be the first time this applied to the state of Michoacán; on September 15th 2008, two fragmentation grenades were detonated in key locations in the city of Morelia. Those events were referred to as terrorism, although no political or criminal group claimed responsibility; they were later associated with drug cartels.
The Merrian-Webster dictionary defines terrorism as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal”. However, the word tends to be directly associated with very specific geopolitical systems that Mexico, for the most part, is independent of. Even when Mexico was directly threatened by some Al-Qaeda communiqué calling for attacks on U.S. energy suppliers, the reaction of most Mexicans was to laugh and make jokes about imaginary terrorist operatives attempting in vain to sabotage a system that is too busy sabotaging itself to care.
However, the vulnerability of energy facilities as targets for these sorts of attacks is hard to deny. It is because of this that, as a response to these attacks, the federal government significantly increased army and police presence around energy facilities both in Michoacán and in the rest of the country. This is not the first time that heavy surveillance and public security surround the energy industry; fuel theft has also been a strong cause for concern that has led to constant increases in security measures (which were also in the headlines last week after several Pemex employees were arrested for leading a fuel theft ring). This is obviously a separate phenomenon, but it is an important part of understanding the ground in common between the Mexican oil and gas industry and the national security state established by Ex-president Felipe Calderon.
What perhaps is most worrying is the idea that energy facilities are being considered as legitimate civilian targets in the strategy of criminal organizations that see themselves as being at war with the state. Attacks on oil and gas facilities in other parts of the world usually have a political or environmental dimension that makes them easier to contextualize or understand; in Mexico, the matter is complicated by the lack of clear demands, motives or clauses inherent to the actions of drug cartels. One could say that the Mexican oil and gas industry’s nature as a target is complicated by the fact that they are a de-politicized target despite the energy industry’s tendency to cause political inflammation.