Mexico president declares gains in fight against fuel theft

MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stopped short Monday of declaring victory over Mexico’s fuel theft scourge, but said the government was making progress amid frustration over gas shortages.

Long lines continued at gas stations in many parts of the country, but Lopez Obrador asked for patience and said things would soon be getting back to normal.

Security patrols had prevented any new illegal taps since late Friday in an important pipeline that brings gasoline from the Gulf coast to Mexico City, he said at his near-daily morning news conference.

Mario Avante, 45, who drives a small truck for a cleaning services company, waited a mere 20 minutes Monday morning to fill his tank at a service station in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, while people in other parts of the capital reported waiting four or five hours the day before.

“The gasoline has started to arrive,” he said, calculating that the panic over gasoline has begun to subside.

Avante, who said he voted for a candidate other than Lopez Obrador, felt it was too early to judge the president’s performance a little over a month after he took office. He applauded Lopez Obrador’s efforts to stem fuel theft, but wished he had planned it better so that distribution wasn’t affected.

More than 5,000 members of the armed forces and federal police are now focused on pipeline security. Lopez Obrador promised to continue the stepped-up security until supplies normalize but said conditions are starting to improve in some places.

He asked citizens to avoid panic buying, saying, “We have enough fuel; it is a distribution issue.”

Octavio Romero, director of the state fuel company Pemex, displayed charts showing fuel sales beginning to pick up in some important parts of the country.

Jalisco, home to Mexico’s second-biggest city, Guadalajara, had seen daily sales drop nearly 40 percent and regain about half that in recent days. Lines as long as 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) have been seen in the city.

Saiji Bojorquez spent two hours queued up to fill his pickup truck in Guadalajara on Monday, and said he knew it had been that long because he watched two episodes of a Netflix show while waiting.

“We have all been respectful. Nobody has broken into the stores,” Bojorquez said. “And you learn to conserve gasoline, to demand better public transportation, and I’m carrying my bicycle back there to inflate the tires.”

For those whose jobs depend on keeping tanks full, the shortages have been frustrating.

“Gasoline is part of our work and that’s where our livelihood comes from,” said Cesar Perez, who delivers food by motorcycle for Uber Eats and was still in line after waiting for an hour. “You have to pump gas almost daily. And it has hurt us a bit, but we hope this is for the good of the country.”

Mexico State on the outskirts of the capital has the country’s biggest population and highest sales volume. It lost well over half of its sales when an important pipeline was taken off line Jan. 3 and showed only a small improvement Saturday, according to Romero’s data. He said Michoacan state sales had about recovered to normal levels.

Mexico City sales volume had rebounded to nearly normal levels by Saturday, but the system was still trying to recover from a day earlier this month that saw daily sales — normally about 10 million liters (2.6 million gallons) — fall to about 1 million liters.

“The truth is we exhausted the city’s inventories,” Romero said, adding that he was confident things would be back to normal in the capital in a few days.

“We’re concluding that if you monitor the pipelines, you guard them, they can operate more efficiently,” Romero said.

On Sunday, Mexico City’s new Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum prompted some consternation among constituents when she called on motorists to follow a calendar under which they would fill up one day a week according to last digit on their cars’ license plates, similar to a smog control system that bars vehicles from circulating one day per week.

She was careful to note via Twitter that it was only a “SUGGESTED” calendar to help people get gas “in a more orderly manner,” but some saw it as a rationing plan and made unflattering comparisons to Venezuela, which has seen severe shortages of all sorts of basic goods amid a deep economic crisis in recent years.

Fuel theft has become a massive problem for Mexico. From January to November last year, 65,000 barrels per day were being stolen, according to Pemex estimates. The vast majority was lost to illegal pipeline taps.

In early December there was a day in which Pemex estimated 126,000 barrels of fuel were stolen. Recent days have had thefts of 3,400 and 6,700 barrels, according to the company.

Lopez Obrador has vowed to get the upper hand on the fuel thieves and earlier this month tried to choke off their supply by taking several major pipelines off line. However, tanker trucks used to deliver the fuel couldn’t distribute at the same levels as the pipelines. Shortages and panicked buying ensued.

Gasoline tankers shown to be involved in fuel theft are now being seized and turned over to Pemex. In Jalisco, authorities on Monday arrested a person in possession of about 7,400 gallons (28,000 liters) of apparently ill-gotten fuel.

Officials also announced that cases were opened against three high-ranking Pemex officials responsible for monitoring pipelines. They were not named.

In Mexico City, spirits were lifting among drivers, some of whom expressed support for Lopez Obrador.

Dulce Escamilla, 38, a government employee who said she didn’t vote for Lopez Obrador, shrugged off the shortage as a minor inconvenience with a higher objective. “We have him as president now, and we have to support him,” she said while filling her small scooter with 5 liters of gasoline at a Pemex station.

“If the government makes changes for the good of the consumer, it’s worth it,” she said.


Associated Press writers Rogelio Navarro in Guadalajara and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.