Mexico’s new president calls countrymen to help in battling fuel thefts

Vastavam web: Mexico’s new president issued an emotional appeal to his countrymen to help battle against fuel thefts on Wednesday, as long lines spread to gas stations in Mexico City. The multi-state fuel scarcity arose after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador decided to close government pipelines riddled with illegal fuel taps drilled by thieves, and instead deliver gas and diesel by tanker trucks. There aren’t enough tanker trucks, and lines have stretched for hours at gas stations in outlying states this week. But by Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, similar lines formed in the capital as nervous motorists sought to fill their tanks. It could be a politically costly battle for Lopez Obrador, as motorists expressed frustration after having to line up for hours, in some cases, to fill their tanks. Some stations have imposed 10 to 20 litre limits on purchases.

The problem spread to Mexico City after a pipeline leading to the city began to leak. Lopez Obrador said it was unclear whether that duct had been punctured intentionally, or whether it simply ruptured. In a video, the government called on motorists to avoid panic purchases as part of a campaign “to rescue the nation’s sovereignty.” Lopez Obrador said the problem would be solved soon, but declined to set a date for re-opening the fuel ducts, which can carry much greater quantities of fuel than trucks.

Some Mexicans were ready to sacrifice to combat the gangs, which have spread murderous violence in once-peaceful states like Puebla and Guanajuato as they fought over turf and customers. The gas shortage had some odd effects: the borough of Nezahualcoyotl, one of Mexico City’s largest and poorest precincts, dispatched 200 police officers to patrol on bicycles on Wednesday, to save gasoline. Patrol cars will be parked at strategic points to chase thieves if needed.

Borough police chief Jorge Amador said “our officers aren’t afraid to ride bikes,” though few of the officers had helmets on. The problem has been a long time brewing, and past administrations had done little to confront the huge problem: Violent, organized gangs drill an average of about 42 illegal taps into government pipelines every day in Mexico.

“The information was there, but nothing was done,” Lopez Obrador said. “It is very hard to say, ‘I didn’t know.’ The authorities knew. Everybody, let’s say, tolerated it.” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said that “nobody in his right mind could be against this. The problem isn’t the goal, it is the methods.”

“It’s like closing the highways, to fight highway robberies,” Hope said, noting it remains to be seen what will happen when the government re-opens pipelines, many of which have been perforated with hundreds or thousands of illegal taps.

Hope said that, as in the past, few people are ever prosecuted for the crime, and some impoverished neighbourhoods in states like Puebla, Guanajuato and Jalisco make a living off stealing fuel from government pipelines. Often, when illegal taps leak, large crowds of residents appear with buckets to scoop up the spilled fuel. “It would be easy to open the pipelines and say ‘the situation is back to normal,’ but that would be tolerating the theft, and accept it, and we are not going to do that,” Lopez Obrador said. “We are going to resist all the pressures.” Business leaders agreed that action was long overdue, but said the crackdown should have been better planned to avoid gasoline shortages.