Why are there fuel shortages in Mexico?


When thieves punctured a pipeline in the Mexican town of Tlahuelilpan, a geyser of high-octane gasoline was sent several metres into the air,

More than 700 residents flocked to the scene to fill jerry cans. People spoke of a party atmosphere.

Local petrol pumps had reportedly run dry, and people needed fuel for their cars.

But two hours later, at least 73 people lay dead after an explosion tore through the scene.

Mexico is a big producer of oil, so how is it that people are dying rushing to gather fuel?

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The answer is that the explosion comes amid a major government crackdown on fuel theft.

While the public has been broadly supportive, it has led to supply issues in central Mexican states which are causing problems nationwide.

What’s caused the fuel problems?

Criminals known as huachicoleros have in recent years begun stealing from oil pipelines and selling fuel on the black market.

A few litres of fuel are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.

Gangs reportedly made 12,581 illegal taps in the first 10 months of 2018, the Associated Press reports – about 42 a day.

Authorities estimate it costs Mexico more than $3 billion (£2.3bn) each year.

Newly-elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known popularly as AMLO, has vowed to crack down on fuel theft.

He announced a new policy last month to shut off major pipelines until they can be properly protected from illegal tapping.

But the closures have disrupted supplies as distribution shifts from pipelines to tanker trucks.

State oil company Pemex has insisted there are no shortages in Mexico, but admits there have been problems delivering the fuel.

“We will not back down from our fight against fuel theft, a crime that damages the national economy and affects every Mexican directly in their finances,” the company said in a press release.

President López Obrador has also stressed the problems are only a distribution issue.

“Even though it hurts a lot, we have to carry on with the plan to end fuel theft,” he vowed after Friday’s explosion.

How have people been affected?

People in the capital Mexico City and surrounding central states have faced massive queues.

Mexico City-based actress and singer Lorena Marcela Vignau Caballero told the BBC of the chaos when the policy began.

“I panicked and filled up my tank the day they cut the pipes,” she said, queuing for half an hour after midnight for petrol.

Traffic was even worse than usual in the city as people rushed to buy fuel.

“It was madness,” she said. “[Since then] we’ve tried as best as we can to run our errands on foot and not to use the car unless it’s super necessary.”

Mayra Cisneros Omaña told the BBC her mother has been affected by the shortages in the city of Guanajuato in central Mexico.

“She wasn’t able to attend her mother’s funeral because it was impossible to get gas,” Ms Cisneros Omaña said.

In the days before, her mother had lined up for 10 hours to buy petrol for the short drive home after flying back to the city from Cancún.

“They bought lunch for a taxi driver in the queue because he had to push his cab the whole time,” she said.

“He didn’t have a penny on him since he hadn’t been able to work for a few days.”

What’s been the reaction?

Polls show that the public broadly supports the president’s new fuel measures – even though they have caused supply issues.

But there have been some protests against the policy in affected states.

The hashtag #DondeHayGasolina – meaning where is there petrol – has been trending on Twitter as Mexicans search for places to buy fuel.

People are also using city-specific tags like #gasolinaCDMX for the capital city, known in Spanish as Ciudad de Mexico or CDMX.

Online, Mexicans have poked fun at the shortages.

A common meme posted on social media compares the country to Mad Max – a film series set in a dystopian future where gangs battle for scarce natural resources.

“In the not too distant future in Mexico, we will give life to the famous film Mad Max,” one said.

Petrol stations have also tried to make light of the situation.

One Twitter user posted a photo of a sign in a forecourt reading, “Don’t blame us, you voted for AMLO”.

And some Mexicans queuing for petrol were saved from the boredom by a mariachi band.

The musicians entertained a line of customers in Morelia in the central state of Michoacán.

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