MEXICO CITY — 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 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.
The fight against $3 billion per year in fuel thefts has become the first big domestic battle for the leftist president, who he took office on Dec. 1.
“We are asking the people to help us, to support us so we won’t be defeated by criminals,” said Lopez Obrador. “All together, we can win and end the fuel thefts.”
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 2.5 to 5 gallon (10 to 20 liters) 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.”
The government has been distributing fuel with tanker trucks. Lopez Obrador said the problem would be solved soon, but refused to set a date for re-opening the fuel ducts, which can carry much greater quantities of fuel than trucks.
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 taps often explode or leak, and the gangs often recruit entire neighborhoods to act as lookouts or confront military patrols.
Lopez Obrador said the thefts occurred in collusion with buyers and employees inside plants operated by the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company.
“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.”
The president said the problem had been left to fester by previous administrations.
“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.”
Business leaders agreed that action was long overdue, but said the crackdown should have been better planned to avoid gasoline shortages.
“This decision was brave and couldn’t be delayed any longer, but the implementation was clumsy and the planning was the worst,” wrote Gustavo de Hoyas, the president of the Mexican employers’ federation.
The head of the Business Coordinating Council, Juan Pablo Castanon, said, “It is important to fight fuel theft, but at the same time you have to have a viable plan to maintain an adequate supply.”