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Latin America

Mexico roiled by protests and looting over oil price hike

President Enrique Peña Nieto says his hands are tied by rising global oil prices. Three dead and more than 600 people arrested so far in looting.
5 Ene 2017 – 05:50 PM EST
Looting was reported in several Mexican states after a gas price increase was introduced Jan 1 Crédito: Getty Images

Mexico witnessed its fifth day of protests on Thursday over a 20 percent increase in the price of gasoline, as a mounting wave of protests and looting has swept parts of the country.

The National Association of Self-Service and Department Stores (ANTAD) reported looting at 250 stores so far. Meanwhile, Mexican authorities said that during the riots a policeman was killed and at least 600 people were arrested in half a dozen states.

On Thursday two suspected looters were shot dead in the streets of the port city of Veracruz, according to the Spanish news agency, Efe.

President Enrique Peña Nieto insisted on Wednesday he would not back down arguing that the “effects and consequences would be worse” if the price hike was reversed.

The Ministry of Finance explained that the fuel costs were tied to rising global oil prices and a decades-old crisis in Mexico’s refineries that had resulted in a need for increased oil imports.

Fuel price rises around the country varied from 14 percent to 20 percent depending on a regional supply network managed by the state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Starting Jan 1, when fuel prices were hiked, hundreds of Mexicans took to the streets of some cities and blocked roads. Some gas stations and buildings were occupied by protesters, while some businesses looted and fuel stolen.

Discontent and violence

In interviews, people consulted expressed concern over the rising cost of gasoline as well as the impact on other products.

"The way we are protesting is wrong because far from helping we are hurting ourselves by blocking roads which only makes us have to spend more on gas," said one driver, Héctor Mayorquín.

One of the most violent incidents occurred on Tuesday, when dozens of people looted a self-service station in the central state of Mexico.

The government of the State of Mexico reported that it arrested 430 people, four of whom are police officers, but civil organizations in that area, such as the Zeferino Ladrillero Human Rights Center, accused authorities of excessive use of force.

"We have verified that there is a policy of generating chaos and fear by municipal police officers in various shopping centers and establishments, and they are telling shopkeepers to close because they are going to be robbed. These groups are acting with impunity and are operating with the approval of the police," Antonio Lara Duque, lawyer and general coordinator of the Zeferino Ladrillero Center for Human Rights, told Univision.

The Deputy Interior Minister, René Juárez, told a press conference that more than 250 people were detained in Mexico City, the state of Mexico and Hidalgo, for vandalism during protests. "These acts are outside the law and have nothing to do with peaceful protest nor freedom of expression," he said.

During the first four days of 2017, dozens of roads in more than 30 Mexican states were blocked by protesters, according to the Federal Police.

Since Wednesday afternoon rumors of attacks on businesses have spread in various parts of the state of Mexico, mostly via social networks and WhatsApp.

In Mexico City, several merchants closed their businesses and police were deployed in some areas. In the State of Mexico some stores were looted and dozens of civilians stopped a gas tank and emptied it with hoses and buckets.

In the north of the country, Mexicans have opted to cross the border to buy gas in the United States where it is 25 percent cheaper.

In some states like Oaxaca, consumers have overrun gas stations to steal fuel.

Protesters have urged Enrique Peña Nieto to reverse the price increase, but Peña Nieto has publicly refused to back down.

"I share the annoyance and the anger that there is; I share the anger. Let me tell you that it is a measure no one would want to take. It is not an easy decision. It is not the desire of the President of the Republic to harm anyone," he said.

Critics say it's hard to take Peña Nieto seriously given persistant allegations of government corruption and mismangement of the country. If he truly shared "our annoyance" about the gas crisis, wrote political analyst Denise Dresser, he should "cut privileges for the politial elite and make government spending more transparent."

Instead, Peña Nieto said the rise in gasoline prices was not the result of any change to domestic energy policy, but rather due to an increase in global fuel prices.

Refining crisis

As occurs all over the world, the cost of gas impacts many sectors of the economy due to rising costs for transportation, with a knock-on effect for many basic consumer products. Prior to the price hike, fuel shortages were being experienced in at least 15 states, generating panic.

In an interview with Univision, Silvia Ramos Luna, Secretary of Petroleum Study and Analysis for the National Union of Petroleum Technicians and Professionals, explained the refining system in Mexico is in a "serious crisis" due to a lack of maintenance at refineries dating back 15 years, as well as other technology issues involving the type of crude oil being pumped from the ground.

Ramos Luna, who also worked as a safety inspector for Pemex, blamed the crisis on disruption caused by a government energy policy to open the state oil company to foreign investment, supposedly in order to “save” the company.

"This is the beginning, and it will get worse because the pipelines and the supply terminals are being tendered. For 80 years Pemex never left the country without gas. There was always supply," she said.