Mexicans have endured a week of gas shortages as the government takes drastic action to combat narco fuel thieves.
Several states in the center of the country, including the capital Mexico City, have seen hundreds of petrol stations closed and long lines at those left open.
The government of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, has cut off the gas supply in a number of key pipelines transporting fuel from refineries.
The aim is take the fight to the “huachicoleros” as the fuel thieves are known. Many are affiliated with larger drug cartels, who for years have been tapping pipelines of the state oil company Pemex.
Fuel theft has become a highly lucrative business for organized crime in recent years as revenue from traditional sources such as marijuana and opium as declined.
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Pemex claims to have had $7.6 billion worth of fuel stolen since 2016, with an astonishing 12,581 taps detected on state-owned and private pipelines between January and October 2018 – compared to 8,664 in the same period the previous year.
AMLO’s policy has been to use trucks and rail cars, often with police escorts, rather than the pipelines to move fuel around the country.
But the strategy is proving less efficient in transporting gas, leaving Mexico City, México state, Querétaro, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Puebla and Morelos facing shortages.
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In the capital, one station visited by Fox News Friday had a queue of drivers snaking around the block and waiting an hour or more to fill up.
Kurt Hungeberg, 48, is a temporary resident of Mexico originally from Denmark who works for a pharmaceutical company.
“Of course it’s not smart of us to sit here waiting for petrol but the purpose of it is that people have been stealing gas from the pipes. A lot of AMLO’s ideas are good from an ideological standpoint but how he is carrying them out might not be the best way,” he told Fox News. “The gangs are very powerful in Mexico so it’s probably going to be a fight like in Colombia. I don’t know if [what AMLO is doing to fight the gas thieves] is going to work.
“I’m just surprised what we’ve seen with the exchange rate now – suddenly it’s getting back to a normal level again so it seems that the foreigners are starting to believe a little bit that he’s not as crazy as people thought in the beginning.”
Pensioner Ramon Del Mora from Mexico City added, “I think it’s a very acceptable measure but the consequences were not thought through. They should have forewarned people first, like they did with the water shortage, but it’s important to take them on [the fuel thieves]. I think it will cause them some problems but not defeat them totally.”
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AMLO has accused previous presidents Enrique Peña Nieto, Vicente Calderón and Vicente Fox of turning a blind eye to fuel theft – a claim all three have denied.
He claims his policy has already had some success, saving $130 million worth of fuel that would otherwise have been stolen and allowing engineers to assess the full extent of the damage caused to pipelines by illegal taps.
But in the “Triángulo Rojo,” the lawless Red Triangle region in the state of Puebla famous for its huachicoleros, it has been business as usual, one thief has claimed.
Speaking to the newspaper Milenio, the man known only as Alberto, claimed to have learned his trade working for the hyper-violent Zetas drug cartel in the state of Veracruz.
He says that he and his accomplices now go out “at two or three in the morning to avoid [the police and military] operations,” adding “everything’s calm at that time.”
Alberto claims to be able to fill two 8,000-gallon tanker trucks with fuel in just half an hour using a single tap.
In Mexico City Friday, taxi driver Delgado Espiritu Jose Mauricio had been waiting in line for an hour following a two-hour wait at a different station the previous day.
“It’s stressful. This is my livelihood and I don’t have another means of providing for myself so you can imagine the effect,” he told Fox News. “I lost two hours of business yesterday and I’m losing again today.
“There are good sides and bad sides [to what AMLO is doing]. It’s bad how [the fuel shortage] is affecting us workers. On the other side it’s important to fight corruption and there are a lot of bad people in the country. [AMLO] is doing things that affect some negatively but benefit many more.
“This is more than just fine words, it is something concrete but he has only been in power less than two months and he needs to keep pressuring the gangs.”
Martha Rodriguez had been waiting in line more than an hour Friday, something highly inconvenient given her job involves traversing the capital meeting clients on behalf of a bank.
“I don’t support what [AMLO] is doing. Everything he does is when he wants and how he wants,” the 43-year-old said. “It’s a good idea [to take on the fuel thieves] but he needed to think before he carried it out the way he has, without notification. He needed to give notice so everyone would have been ready.
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“They [the fuel thieves] need to be in jail of course but this is too much. Eventually I think it will work, but in the meantime it’s a big problem for people like me in our everyday lives.”