Low on gas, high on hope, many Mexicans back leader’s war on fuel thieves

Marco Ugarte/AP
Commuters line up to fill their tanks at a gas station, some of which are limiting purchases, in Mexico City, Jan. 14. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s handling of the shortage – including his method of fighting fuel theft – has been an early test of his presidency.
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Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, begins most mornings with an hour-long press conference, peppered with his trademark folksy turns of phrase. And lately, lots of those talks have dealt with gas. Fuel has long been a hot-button issue here, and illegal tapping of state-owned gas pipelines cost Mexico roughly $3 billion in 2017. AMLO, as the president is known, entered office vowing to battle corruption and impunity. But his campaign against fuel theft, which has closed down key pipelines and brought on major fuel distribution problems in many regions, has left people with hours-long waits at the pump. Yet AMLO’s approval ratings have actually increased, and a vast majority support his gas campaign, according to a poll by a Mexican daily. Some observers say it’s AMLO’s accessibility – like those hour-long talks – that leaves many Mexicans willing to wait out the challenges. But the campaign also melds central themes AMLO underscored in his historic presidential victory: an end to fraud and impunity, working to help the “everyman,” and a more secure and safer Mexico.

Why We Wrote This

Politicians’ vows to fight corruption, crime, and impunity are usually crowd-pleasers. But when the campaign runs into real-life complications, what price is the public prepared to pay?

Editor’s note: In news that broke after this story was published, more than 60 people are reported dead and more are missing or injured in a fuel-pipeline explosion Jan. 18 in the town of Tlahuelilpan, in the state of Hidalgo north of Mexico City. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pledged to investigate the incident, which is initially being attributed to an illegal pipeline tap. “I believe in the people, I trust in the people, and I know that with these painful, lamentable lessons, the people will also distance themselves from these practices,” he said according to an Associated Press report.

Vittoria Romero and her daughter Celia were celebrating with high-fives and big smiles on a bright but chilly morning this week: They’d successfully filled their compact car’s gas tank after less than 30 minutes in line.

Across Mexico, people like the Romeros have been contending with hours-long bumper-to-bumper waits at the pumps, reduced bus transportation, and other daily inconveniences for the past two weeks. The fuel distribution problems began after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ordered the closure of key pipelines in late December in an effort to curtail rampant fuel theft. Illegal taps in state-owned pipelines cost Mexico roughly $3 billion in 2017. Between January and November last year an estimated 65,000 barrels of fuel were stolen per day, according to the state-owned petroleum company, Pemex.

Why We Wrote This

Politicians’ vows to fight corruption, crime, and impunity are usually crowd-pleasers. But when the campaign runs into real-life complications, what price is the public prepared to pay?

Gas has long been a hot-button issue here, from its nationalization in 1938 to a price hike in 2017 that led to weeks-long, sometimes violent protests. But despite plenty of grumbling over the daily effects of the pipeline cuts and distribution challenges, AMLO, as the president is often called, has maintained widespread support. According to a Monday poll published in the Mexican daily El Financiero, 89 percent support the president’s offensive against fuel theft. His overall approval ratings have even increased slightly, to roughly 76 percent support.

Amid so much frustration, support for the president comes down to a sense of hopefulness – well-founded or not – that Mr. López Obrador is making tangible changes for good. Unlike previous leaders, López Obrador is governing in a way that’s more visible to the public. Fuel shortages have consistently headlined his daily, livestreamed press conferences. The fight against theft in many ways melds central themes AMLO underscored in his historic presidential victory: an end to fraud and impunity, working to help the “everyman,” and a more secure and safer Mexico. Fraud and impunity have gone essentially unimpeded for decades, and many reason that dealing with gas shortages is worth it – to an extent.

“I’ve waited for close to two hours before,” says the younger Ms. Romero, a masseuse who relies on her mother’s car to get to many of her clients. “It’s a pain, and I hope it doesn’t go on much longer. But, at the end of the day, it’s worth it if it’s for the good of the country.”

A present president

López Obrador spends roughly an hour every weekday morning speaking to reporters and the public in press conferences that stream online. His announcements often come off as unplanned or off the cuff, peppered with trademark folksy turns of phrase. And although he frequently skirts questions (Mexican magazine Nexos tracked how often he responded in December, putting it at about 71 percent of time), his public presence is a 180-degree turn from his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, who rarely took questions from the press and led at arm’s length.

“When you’re not out there talking to the press and not talking to the public, you’re simply not there. That’s what happened with Peña Nieto; he was an absent president,” says Alejandro Schtulmann, president and head of research at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis consulting firm in Mexico City. He thinks support continues for AMLO despite the daily impact of the fuel cuts because he’s governing out loud and so publicly compared with past leaders.

“López Obrador is a really good communicator. He may lie or not actually give any information when he answers a question, but at least he’s there. And people believe by being present he’s there for them,” Mr. Schtulmann says.

Rosa Diana, a housekeeper in Mexico City, says she’s had to wait longer for the bus in the morning since fewer appear to be running the past few weeks. She voted for AMLO, but is growing frustrated with her commute and the lack of concrete plans for fuel distribution.

“I think people are supporting AMLO through it all because they think he’s going to increase benefits,” she says, referring to his promises to boost pensions for the elderly and scholarships for impoverished youth, among other social programs. “They don’t like what the gas situation has done in their daily lives, but they are willing to be patient because they think he will help them in other ways.”

Unmapped road

More than 5,000 security officials have been deployed to protect the most important pipelines this month. While lines are closed, fuel is moved by tankers, a slower – and costly – form of transportation, contributing to shortages in parts of the country.

Oil theft is a real challenge that few leaders have tried to tackle in the past. Illegally tapping pipelines is carried out not only by transnational criminal groups, but also by communities near pipelines which rely on black-market oil income to stay afloat. Government employees, private security, and Pemex officials have also been implicated in oil-theft-related corruption.

Although ending fuel theft is important, analysts worry that there isn’t an actual plan other than these short-term cuts. “The purpose of the policy is not really clear,” says Schtulmann, adding that tankers aren’t a long-term solution and fully guarding hundreds of miles of pipelines isn’t realistic. “Eventually we’ll return to the pipelines, so it’s unclear what [the president] is doing that is going to be different.”

Others are more optimistic.

“It will be difficult to say ‘the problem has been eradicated,’ but I foresee small yet important steps coming out of this, like reclaiming government territory from criminal networks and exposing corrupt officials,” says Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz, a political scientist and expert on security at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The government’s announcement Monday that three top Pemex officials will be tried for fuel theft is promising, he says. More than 1,500 other individual investigations are under way, according to the attorney general’s office.

“Fighting corruption is symbolic, and [López Obrador] wins big points with his words and actions around it,” says Mr. Isnardo. “In the short term he’ll continue getting a lot of support for this fight,” but if the economy starts to take a big hit or the peso falls, support could falter. He thinks this could go on for a few more months without AMLO taking a big hit.

“Right now, he has almost unconditional support.”

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