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Latin America

The Mexican oil treasure found by a fisherman

In 1961 Rudesindo Cantarell saw a dark patch that led to the discovery of a huge reserve

Now the site is being studied as an example of the poor management of state oil

A Pemex refinery in Tula, Mexico.
A Pemex refinery in Tula, Mexico.

It was July 1961 when Rudesindo Cantarell Jiménez saw something strange while he was fishing in the Bay of Campeche, in the south of the Gulf of Mexico.

From on board the Centenario del Carmen trawler he saw a black patch in the turquoise-colored waters of the Caribbean. Cantarell could not believe his eyes.

Nevertheless, he did not tell anyone about his discovery until 1968, when he made the acquaintance of an engineer from Mexican state oil firm Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

It wasn’t until 1979 when the Mexican government began exploiting its biggest natural resource

Three years later, officials announced that the biggest global oil reserve in the Americas and the second-biggest in the world had been discovered 70 kilometers from what is now the popular Mexican resort of La Playa del Carmen.

But it wasn’t until 1979 when the Mexican government began exploiting its biggest natural resource. Now, though, that project is being help up as an example of the bad management of the country’s oil industry.

The oil boom put Mexico at the center of OPEC, the organization of petroleum-producing countries. Decades of Mexican governments under the control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) used the oil find to obtain international financing to create a host of huge infrastructure projects. The small dark patch that Cantarell saw seemed to extend across Mexico, from one coast to the other.

Rudesindo Cantarell
Rudesindo Cantarell

But then in the early 1980s, global oil prices started to sink at the same time as interest rates shot up. The Mexican government’s inability to meet loan payments pushed it into a dismal crisis that lasted a decade.

As revenues from Pemex rose to make up 40 percent of Mexico’s budget, the reliance on oil money also numbed competitiveness.

Now, though output is falling – Pemex’s production has dropped from 3.3 million barrels a day to 2.5 million over the last 10 years – revealing the stagnation of the state monopolistic system.

Mexico’s entire energy history is a paradox: the country's 53 million poor live above around 30 billion barrels of oil and 500,000 million cubic feet of natural gas. But Mexican law has always prohibited private firms from prospecting.

Last year, President Enrique Peña Nieto, of the PRI party, finally opened the state-owned energy sector to some private investment – an opening that may help many Mexicans emerge from poverty.

But Cantarell won’t see that change. He died in 1997 at age 83. There is, however, one small reminder of his legacy – the offshore drilling site in the Bay of Campeche carries his name: Cantarell.

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