MEXICO CITY (CNS) — A Mexican archdiocese is warning against the veneration of a “pseudo saint” created to legitimize criminal activities such as stealing gasoline, saying it is “playing with people’s faith.”

Officials with the Archdiocese of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, say a band of gasoline thieves known as “huachicoleros” have altered an image of the Santo Nino de Atocha (Holy Child of Atocha) — a popular image of the Christ child — to show the child holding a gas can and hose and bearing the name “Santo Nino Huachicolero.”

“This image can never be accepted. Being a ‘huachicolero’ is practically a crime. The church cannot be in favor of this, much less be in favor that images are used in this way,” said Father Paulo Carvajal, archdiocesan spokesman.

Thieves tapping pipelines belonging to Pemex, the state oil company, stole more than 600 million gallons of gasoline in 2016, according to online news organization Animal Politico. The number of illegal pipeline taps, meanwhile, numbering 6,159 in 2016, has increased by 791 percent since 2010, the company reported.

The crisis is especially acute in parts of Puebla, where gangs known as “huachicoleros” employ hordes of locals — for tasks that include tapping pipelines, transporting and selling the stolen product and spying on the movements by police in soldiers — in areas plagued by an absence of economic opportunities.

Opportunistic motorists, meanwhile, purchase stolen gasoline — “huachicol,” slang for bad-quality whiskey — for roughly half the price charged at service stations. Stolen gasoline also is fenced to unscrupulous services stations, according to security analysts.

“This is a problem with many angles,” said Father Jose Manuel Suazo Reyes, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Xalapa, in neighboring Veracruz state. “There are these people obviously stealing gasoline … but you also see a lot of accomplices around them, those tolerating this.”

Huachicoleros hit the headlines recently as a May 3 army operation against gasoline theft resulted in 10 deaths, including four soldiers. The army said in a statement that its troops came under attack from gunmen using women and children as human shields.

Villagers blocked a major highway in protest.

Analysts say the protests show the social support some huachicoleros enjoy, even though their activities are illegal. Symbols such as the “Santo Nino” are being used to “deceive” people, Father Carvajal said.

“These people are simple, they believe in Christ, but are not prepared” in the faith, Father Carvajal said. “It is not religious or spiritual interests” behind the “pseudo saint,” he added. “These are economic interests and the interests of those seeking power … and they’re playing with people’s good intentions.”