MEXICO CITY — Motorists lined up for a fourth straight day at gas stations in western Mexico Tuesday as the government continued to restrict pipeline deliveries to combat illegal fuel taps.
With pipelines riddled with illegal taps drilled by fuel thieves, the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has switched to shipping fuel by tanker truck in a few western and central states. But there aren't enough trucks for the task.
Lopez Obrador said fuel theft gangs have grown so bold — and have so many connections inside refineries — that they've been stealing gasoline and diesel directly from plants.
Lopez Obrador said soldiers dispatched to guard depots and refineries found a 2-mile (3 kilometer) long hose leading from one refinery to a tank outside.
Authorities said Monday that attempts to re-open a key pipeline were abandoned after the duct was found to be leaking fuel at numerous points.
Gov. Enrique Alfaro of the western state of Jalisco said officials of the government-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, had briefly tried to resume shipments through a pipeline to a refinery in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, "but the pipeline was so damaged that re-opening it was impossible."
Pemex released a statement later Tuesday urging patience from Mexicans and calling on them to avoid "panic purchases" because there is enough fuel to meet demand across the country.
It said the shortages are being caused by "a logistical adjustment" as measures are taken to prevent fuel theft. The statement said that supply would be restored "in the short term" but did not give an exact time.
Patience was running thin in some cities where insufficient amounts of gasoline arrived by tanker truck and many stations have closed.
People lined up with jugs in hand to buy small amounts of gasoline and some stations limited purchases to 2.5 to 5 gallons (10 to 20 liters) or less.
The long lines have reportedly begun to encourage small-scale reselling of gasoline by private individuals, something that could foment exactly the kind of fuel-theft rings Lopez Obrador is trying to combat.
The head of the Mexican Employers' Federation told the newspaper La Jornada that the fuel shortages "could foment illegal activities" because people may be willing to pay resellers more.
The opposition National Action Party said 84 percent of gas stations were closed in Guanajuato, a state it governs, and claimed the figure reached 90 percent in the state of Michoacan.
"To fight fuel theft, they had the bright idea of shutting down pipelines," the party said in a statement. "By that logic, to combat thefts from ATM machines, you should close all the automatic tellers. It is absurd."
Lopez Obrador said fuel theft costs the government $3 billion per year and the gangs are so sophisticated that they have established an alternative, clandestine and illegal distribution network with their own depots.
Lopez Obrador said some gangs had actually built warehouses over pipeline rights of way to drill illegal taps into the ducts. At big construction projects, the gangs would set up sales points to supply stolen diesel to heavy equipment operators.
Lopez Obrador said the during his strategy of deploying military personnel to guard distribution depots and refineries and to shut down tapped pipelines has already led to a decline in thefts during his first month in office.