Men work at an oil pump in Lagunillas, Ciudad Ojeda, in the state of Zulia, Venezuela, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia
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When night falls over western Venezuela, armed gangs known as "pirates" sometimes ride boats into muggy Lake Maracaibo to steal equipment from oil wells.Holdups 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.Oil output in Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven reserves, has been falling or stagnating for about a decade, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures.In January, for instance, PDVSA reported one of its employees was killed during a nighttime holdup by seven criminals at a well near Lake Maracaibo. The "pirates" of Lake Maracaibo, a massive bay where the country's oil boom took off a century ago, target cables and devices that control gas injection, according to several PDVSA employees who work on the water and spoke on condition of anonymity.Small groups of armed men on boats typically zip up to an oil platform at night and hold up workers, stealing everything from microwaves to wallets to machinery, according to oil workers.Soldiers disguised as workers patrol the refinery at all times and several workers are under investigation, Lt. Osuna said.The "pirates" attack oil platforms between five and six times a month, estimated Francisco Luna, a machinist in Lake Maracaibo and a leader of Venezuela's oil workers' federation.
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