Less than six weeks after taking office, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is facing a crisis of his own making — one that threatens to cut into his popularity and worsen the nation’s already-sluggish economy.
A gasoline shortfall arising from his decision to shut down pipelines to fight fuel theft has left hundreds of service stations closed and resulted in blocks-long gas lines, triggering desperation among citizens in much of the country.
Dominating the news here are images of people in their vehicles queuing up for petrol — in some cases, motorists waiting overnight at filling stations in faint hopes that the facilities may open.
Some scattered protests and road blockages have broken out in a country where oil is viewed as an essential component of national patrimony. Two years ago, gas-price hikes here sparked riots and looting.
Nerves are fraying anew and edgy business leaders are warning of long-term damage to an economy mired in slow-growth mode.
Police are escorting fuel trucks in Mexico City, while thousands of troops have been dispatched to guard refineries, fuel depots and other energy infrastructure facing threats of sabotage from organized gangs of fuel thieves.
“Now we are lining up for gasoline, and I hope in the future, we won’t be on line to buy bread, sugar, milk,” said Julia Rendon, 41, a real estate agent found on a gas line in the capital. “This situation is very worrying and I hope we don’t become another Venezuela.”
While lauded for going after black-market fuel profiteers, Lopez Obrador — who took office Dec. 1 with popularity ratings of 65% or more — has been widely assailed for abruptly shutting down pipelines without an effective alternate distribution plan. That left much of the country without gasoline, even though he insists there is no shortage — just a temporary bottleneck.
“It is a magnificent decision to combat the robbery of fuel,” wrote Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and columnist at the El Universal newspaper. “But not at any cost--not putting entire regions of the country on the edge of paralysis, not generating a collective psychosis that threatens social stability and the march of the economy.”
Critics long skeptical of Lopez Obrador’s populist, left-wing agenda have portrayed the episode as the hasty, ill-planned actions of a president known for his stubbornness and almost evangelical belief in the righteousness of his decisions.
“The crisis in gasoline supplies is only the first of many that will come,” said Jorge Suarez-Velez, an economist, in Reforma newspaper.
Opposition politicians have seized the opportunity to attack a president who was elected in landslide fashion last year and now effectively controls both houses of the Mexican congress — making him the country’s most powerful leader in a generation.
“We welcome the battle against the robbery of gasoline,” Silvano Aureoles, opposition governor of western Michoacan state, told reporters. “But not at the cost of shutting down the economy and causing worse problems. The remedy is costing us more than the illness.”
For his part, Lopez Obrador has declined to provide a timetable for when the pipelines might reopen. He has urged motorists not to fill tanks needlessly or make “panic” purchases at the pump, while encouraging people to report fuel theft.
“Let’s see who backs down first,” a typically combative Lopez Obrador told reporters Friday, issuing a challenge to the fuel thieves. “Because we are going to stop them from robbing gasoline.”
The president, who has vowed a national “transformation,” has made fighting corruption his No. 1 priority and singled out fuel theft — which, authorities say, involves an alliance between organized crime and complicit officials, including politicians, police and employees and contractors of Petroleos Mexicanos, Pemex, the state energy behemoth.
The paradox of a nation where the president insists there are abundant reserves of fuel — “We have supplies for the long term,” Lopez Obrador has said repeatedly — but where lines for gas have suddenly become the norm is an irony not lost on Mexicans.
“Without gasoline, I don’t have a way to make a living and feed my family,” said Arturo Diaz, 54, a taxi driver who had been waiting for two hours in Mexico City to fill his car’s tank. “If I can’t find gasoline here, I’m going to buy it on the black market. I can’t waste more days without working.”
The crisis arose from the president’s decision in late December to alter the national fuel distribution process in a bid to cut down on massive fuel theft — which the government said represented a $3 billion loss last year for Pemex.
Much of the pilfering stems from organized criminal bands — known as huachicoleros — who systemically tap into pipelines, siphoning off product to be sold on the black market. The long-time problem has gotten worse in recent years, resulting in occasional shootouts between well-armed gas thieves and authorities.
Last year, Pemex detected more than 12,500 illegal pipeline taps, almost four times as many as in 2014.
But ending the huachicolero racket, experts say, may prove as difficult as dismantling the drug cartels that hold sway over much of the country.
Mexico’s extensive pipeline network traverses isolated zones where the ducts are easy targets for gangs — some linked to drug trafficking rings — with specialized knowledge of how to tap into the ducts. Fuel theft and black market sales of gasoline are said to sustain entire communities in states such as Veracruz, Puebla and Hidalgo.
In late December, the government shifted much of the country’s gasoline distribution to the roads, where tanker-trucks — less vulnerable to theft than pipelines — were to transport gas to filling stations.The point of the pipeline shutdown, the president said, was to identify leaks and vulnerable points in the network.
However, there weren’t enough tanker-trucks ready to cover the volume of fuel normally moved through pipelines. How this essential fact was overlooked remains a source of scorn in the press and in social media.
“The most incredible thing about the crisis of [gasoline] supply is that it is auto-generated,” Mario Campos, a professor at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, wrote on Twitter. “Didn’t it occur to anyone on the president’s team … that they had to resolve the distribution problem BEFORE closing the pipelines?”
Last weekend, gasoline shortages began emerging in places such as the Pacific Coast state of Jalisco, the automobile-manufacturing hub of Guanajuato, and the Gulf state of Tamaulipas. The shortages soon spread to other states and to metropolitan Mexico City, home to some 25 million people.
The president has dispatched more than 4,000 troops to guard supply routes, refineries and other Pemex facilities. Authorities have accused fuel gangs of sabotaging Pemex infrastructure.
But, once the pipelines reopen — which they inevitably will, experts say, since there is no cost-effective alternative — there are not nearly enough troops and police to defend almost 1,000 miles of pipelines against illegal tappers.
“The soldiers can’t stay [forever], and it’s too expensive to use tanker-trucks,” Gonzalo Monroy, an energy consultant, wrote on Twitter. “We are going to return to the pipelines. And … once again they [thieves] are going to target them, puncture them, and tap into them. It’s a perpetual game of cat and mouse.”
Cecilia Sanchez in the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed.