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 tanker 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.
Taxi driver Raymundo Cabrera Diaz had waited for an hour at a downtown Mexico City gas station and was running on empty as he reached the pumps.
"I haven't got anything, I made it here by a miracle," Cabrera Diaz said, motioning at his gas gauge. "Fuel theft had to be fought, but this is affecting the general public, drivers, people getting to work."
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 litres) 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."
Lopez Obrador said the problem would be solved soon, but declined to set a date for re-opening the fuel ducts, which can carry much greater quantities of fuel than trucks.
Some Mexicans were ready to sacrifice to combat the gangs, which have spread murderous violence in once-peaceful states like Puebla and Guanajuato as they fought over turf and customers.
"I think we are prepared to wait for a while, in order to combat fuel theft," said Leonel Ivan, a family chauffeur who was also waiting in line to fill the tank of his red minivan.
The gas shortage had some odd effects: the borough of Nezahualcoyotl, one of Mexico City's largest and poorest precincts, dispatched 200 police officers to patrol on bicycles on Wednesday, to save gasoline. Patrol cars will be parked at strategic points to chase thieves if needed.
Borough police chief Jorge Amador said "our officers aren't afraid to ride bikes," though few of the officers had helmets on.
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 neighbourhoods to act as lookouts or confront military patrols trying to close the taps or seize stolen gasoline and diesel.
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."
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said that "nobody in his right mind could be against this. The problem isn't the goal, it is the methods."
"It's like closing the highways, to fight highway robberies," Hope said, noting it remains to be seen what will happen when the government re-opens pipelines, many of which have been perforated with hundreds or thousands of illegal taps.
Hope said that, as in the past, few people are ever prosecuted for the crime, and some impoverished neighbourhoods in states like Puebla, Guanajuato and Jalisco make a living off stealing fuel from government pipelines. Often, when illegal taps leak, large crowds of residents appear with buckets to scoop up the spilled fuel.
"Part of the response has to be a social intervention in the communities that depend on fuel theft, and we also haven't seen that yet," he said.
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."
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.