Venezuelans fed up with fuel shortages have begun tapping into the country’s crude oil pipelines to distill their own petrol as the country’s economic demise accelerates.
The emerging practice was documented by a Reuters investigation that found desperate Venezuelans breaking holes in pipes and siphoning off crude oil and diverting it to makeshift rural laboratories.
The revelation underscores the severity of the country’s spectacular economic and infrastructure collapse.
Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, however biting US sanctions and mismanagement by the state oil company nationalised by the socialist government has resulted in a dive in production.
Venezuelans, who once enjoyed essentially free gasoline thanks to government subsidies, now spend days in petrol queues that snake through the streets.
One man, mechanic Daniel Vásquez, told The Telegraph from the capital Caracas in April after sleeping in his car overnight waiting for petrol: “We have to be watching closely for when the line forms, some people find out that gas will arrive, and then we get in line, and then wait for hours or days.”
To avoid the queues and make a profit off of the shortages, some have started puncturing pipelines at idled state oil fields, installing their own smaller tubes into the pipes.
From there, the tubes transport the oil to small, homemade refineries where the substance must be distilled and refined.
“This is the El Palito refinery,” a man proudly proclaims in an online video circulating in Venezuela circles on social media. The video shows two black canisters over a fire in a barrel with tubes transporting the substance into two other containers and finally into two gas canisters.
Meanwhile, thieves regularly loot oil facilities at night. Offered salaries that only amount to a few dollars per month, most of the experts needed to run the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA) fled the country long ago.
Women selling official PDVSA uniforms have been spotted on the street in the Colombian border town of Cucuta.
The petrol shortages have been briefly alleviated in short spurts this year by shipments of oil from Iran in violation of US sanctions.
The Iranians have sent five tankers of petroleum to Venezuela since April.
In June, the US State Department retaliated by imposing new sanctions on the captains of ships who delivered the oil.
The president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro announced on state TV in May: “Islamic Republic of Iran, thank you for the support you are sending.”
The TV channel provided live coverage of the arrival of the ships with camera shots from helicopters above the tankers.
However, the shortages and lines only eased for a few weeks after the Iranian petrol arrived, according to residents.
Venezuelans soon found themselves waiting overnight again. The few with the ability pay bribes to avoid the lines.
Others may now turn instead to ‘El Flaco’ or ‘skinny guy’ in Spanish.
A dairy farmer who needed petrol in Venezuela’s Zulia state recently bought some from the man, he told Reuters.
He knew it had come from a homemade refinery.
He said: “The truck drove fine for a couple days, but three days after, the engine started to sputter and now it won’t turn on.”
Oil engineers have also warned that without the proper additives the home distilled gasoline could cause explosions.
Venezuela remains divided between the official government of Mr Maduro and the self-declared interim president Juan Guaido, who is recognised internationally as the country’s legitimate leader. Hopes of a real transfer of power have faded since deadly protests in 2019.
Desperate to boost oil production again, Mr Maduro’s government is attempting to open up the state oil industry to foreign private investment – a move that forsakes a cornerstone of Chavista socialism.
With parliamentary elections approaching in December, the move marks a radical departure for the 21st-century socialism project started under Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.