To many people, gasoline thievery means nothing more pernicious than siphoning fuel out of a parked car when no one is looking. In Mexico, however, it’s a criminal enterprise on par with the drug trade, encompassing both the cartels and street-level criminals. Pipelines in out-of-the-way areas are tapped by the huachicoleros, costing Pemex, the state oil company, billions of dollars in repairs and lost revenues. There’s a toll in human lives, too, as murder is part of how the huachicoleros do business and explosive accidents have claimed hundreds of victims, and their crimes have driven up gas prices, which only creates greater demand for illegal fuel in the country’s poorer regions.
Into this vicious circle, on an old, rusting bicycle, rides Lalo (Eduardo Bando), the 14-year-old central character of first-time feature director Edgar Nito’s galvanizing The Gasoline Thieves (Huachicolero). Living with his mom in an impoverished area of Guanajuato, Lalo makes a little money working for local farmer Don Gil (Fernando Becerril), who also employs Lalo in his very small, personal trade in contraband gas. But circumstances lure Lalo toward the bigger, more dangerous world of the organized criminals—and like innocents lured into crime since time immemorial, he does it for love. Lalo has a crush on classmate Ana (Regina Reynoso), and she and her friends tease him that the way to her heart is through a new smartphone. Nito and co-scripter Alfredo Mendoza have a great ear for the rhythms of teenage interaction, and there’s an appealing naturalism to the youthful performances, particularly that of Bando, who demonstrates real presence and depth in his first film role.
From Lalo’s basic ambition to afford that phone, Nito plunges him into a milieu he’s very ill-prepared for. Lalo goes to work for Mariano (Pascacio López), who heads up the local huachicolero operation and claims that what he’s doing is honest work. “We give back to the people,” he tells Lalo. “We’re not screwing anybody.” Unless, of course, you get on his bad side, and Nito makes it clear how high and dangerous the stakes are long before it’s apparent to Lalo. Reading gas for drugs, The Gasoline Thieves could be seen as an analog for any number of stories of young men sucked into deadly trades, but the specificity of this situation makes the movie special. There are reminders scattered through the film that these gangsters are dealing in a supply that the people need, rather than just want, which lends a particular urgency to the overall situation, and there’s an engrossing authenticity to the emotions behind the characters’ actions.
The Gasoline Thieves is also set apart by its superb, observant craft. Juan Pablo Ramírez’s cinematography has a gritty immediacy as his camera follows Lalo through art director Omar Conde’s finely wrought environments, and Ramírez also captures striking nighttime scenes lit by flaming jets of fuel. The score by Carlo Ayhllón adds to the urgency as Lalo embroils himself deeper into an underworld whose tentacles extend into those he loves, and those who might protect him. Relevant as hell and timeless in its themes, The Gasoline Thieves points Nito (whose previous work includes shorts and a segment of the horror anthology México Bárbaro) toward becoming a major player on the international movie scene.