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Why Mexico is running out of fuel

Monica Vazquez Ruiz Mexico City
January 20, 2019

The new Mexican government is battling the mafia's massive theft of gasoline. But the consequences are a lack of fuel, growing unrest among the population — and a deadly blaze that resulted from desperate siphoning.

Flames leaping skyward at the gas pipeline explosion in Hidalgo, Mexico
Image: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency

It is already two o'clock in the morning, and Mexico City commuter Athena Silva still can't refuel. For over an hour she has been standing with her car in a long line of vehicles formed at a gas station in Mexico City.

Other waiting drivers suspect that it will take another hour until it's their turn to fill up. "I set the alarm for midnight to find out where there in the city there will be gas, and at what time to avoid endless queues during the day," Silva tells DW.

Since the government of new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador declared war on organized gasoline theft and closed the power lines of the state-owned petroleum company PEMEX, the country's capital has been suffering from an acute shortage of gasoline.

The government has estimated that PEMEX has lost $3 billion (€2.6 billion) annually from fuel theft. In the first 10 months of 2018, thieves drilled 12,581 illegal taps.

Gas tanker in Mexico City flanked by police
Gas tankers, like this one in Mexico City flanked by a police escort, take much longer to reach distribution centers than do pipelines — causing all sorts of headaches for consumersImage: AFP/Getty Images/P. Pardo

To mitigate the problem, the government ordered fuel transport instead be via tanker trucks; PEMEX has complied, currently transporting the nation's fuel supply to stations across the country in guarded tankers. But this mode of distribution takes much longer and leads to bottlenecks nationwide. As a result, severe fuel shortages have resulted in many states and many gas stations remain closed, forcing commuters to travel even further to fill up — and take desperate measures. 

A deadly blaze ignited Friday afternoon after an illegal tap was drilled into the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline in the small town of Tlahuelilpan in Hidalgo, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Mexico City. Locals were attempting to use buckets to collect the fuel from the PEMEX-owned pipeline when the massive fire erupted, spouting gasoline dozens of feet in the air. 

Though the army arrived at the scene and cordoned off the area, some some 200 people broke through to reach the fuel — and at least 79 were killed in the blaze, with at least 81 injured.

Interminable waits at the pump

Even before the deadly explosion, the desperation was palpable. "Chaos has taken over the city now. The commute between work and home is much longer now. I want to see consequences and people end up in prison," Mexico City resident Claudia Ramirez told DW.

"The queues are so long that there are people here selling food, soft drinks, and coffee," says Gustavo Garcia, a taxi owner.  The measures, which was meant to be only a short-term solution against corruption, have now dragged on for weeks.

In an effort to cope with the problem, many people have switched to public transport which has, in turn, led to overcrowded buses and trains. Rush hour is so busy that some even decide to walk the way to work, especially women. "Everyone says 'just take the metro!' They have no idea what it's like to be a woman in a crowded metro. Everybody is out to grope, or even attack you," Maria Lopez told DW.

Mexican police confiscating an abandoned truck used to transport stolen gasoline
In the last two months, Mexican police have confiscated over 1,700 vehicles like this one, that are usually stolen from their owners, used to transport stolen gasoline and abandoned after a few tripsImage: picture-alliance/E. Verdugo

Backlash against new president

Many citizens express their dissatisfaction and anger on social media. With the hashtag #AsíNoAmlo (Not like this, AMLO) they complain about the government's method, addressing it with the new president's initials. The demands mostly call for an end to the gasoline racket — through different means — and for an assurance of a normal supply at petrol stations.

The growing unrest is also due to the lack of information. No one knows when and where the next tankers will arrive. When the government will end the measures and whether they will prove effectual is also unknown.

In the meantime, self-organizing initiatives are forming on the internet. People share information online on the availability of fuel in specific districts and tip-offs on open or closed petrol stations are passed on.

Mexicans are split on how AMLO has implemented the anti-theft measures. "It won't be easy ending corruption," Atenas Silva tells DW. "Let's give the government the time it needs to put a stop to the mafia. We'll manage all right with the lack of petrol until then," she adds.

But others are not so optimistic. Recently a widespread panic broke out when rumors of an impending food shortage circulated on the internet. Fake pictures of empty supermarkets went viral and led to panic buying. "I'm scared we'll end up like Venezuela. First the gasoline, and then what?" Mexico City resident Patricia Robles to DW.