Five days after a reviled fuel price increase went into effect, Mexicans are still in the streets protesting against the measure.
Demonstrations spread throughout Mexico during the first days of the year, reportedly occurring in 28 of the country’s 32 states, with Mexicans from political parties, labor unions, and other groups mounting sit-ins, roadblocks, and other protests.
In recent days, popular outrage has curdled into violent displays as looters strike stores and other outlets around the country.
Ongoing demonstrations and damage caused by protestors have also hindered the state oil company Pemex’s ability to distribute fuel to some parts of Mexico, exacerbating shortages that have been popping up for weeks.
“In addition to the problem of supply, there have been blockades of stores – more than 170 – and, even more seriously, looting – of 79 stores – that besides resulting in the theft of merchandise put at risk the lives of clients and workers in the stores, primarily in Mexico State, Michoacan, Hidalgo, and Mexico City,” the National Association of Self-Service and Department Stores, or ANTAD, said in a statement on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the group said that 250 stores had been totally looted, with stores in Mexico state, Michoacan, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tabasco, and Mexico City affected.
Authorities were inspecting the stores for damage to installations and equipment, said Manuel Cardona, ANTAD’s government relations director, “but in terms of merchandise, the looting is absolute.”
In Mexico City on Wednesday, 23 stores were sacked and 27 blockades were thrown up, according to Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera. The city also had about 20 people detained. One capital police officer was killed and six others were injured, according to Proceso.
Some shops in the capital were closed on Wednesday, though the local government’s secretary general said police would prevent further destruction.
The state of Mexico, which wraps around Mexico City, on Wednesday reported 161 arrests in six municipalities for “various acts of vandalism and thefts at shops.”
On Thursday, a state official said that the total number of arrests for vandalism had risen to 430 and that 1,500 federal police were being deployed at the request of the affected municipalities. Among those 430 were four state police officers who were recorded loading stolen goods into their patrol car after looters had fled.
According to the Mexico City-based daily Reforma, military units were deployed to parts of Mexico City and Mexico state to deter further looting, responding to reports of armed people taking part in the ransacking.
Military personnel also took up station at Pemex supply terminals and federal electrical installations. Two marches are expected in the capital on Thursday.
Protests were not limited to the center of the country, however. Through Thursday, more than 630 people had been arrested in six states.
In Nuevo Leon, a state in Mexico’s northeast, some 50 trailers formed a kilometer-long demonstration on a federal highway. “Total rejection of the fuel increase,” read a banner draped over one of the vehicles.
Taxi drivers in Acapulco, in the southwest state of Guerrero, took part in their fifth day of protests, blocking main thoroughfares in the tourist city. Elsewhere in the state, transport workers suspended service and kept some Pemex gas stations closed in protest of the price hikes.
The video below shows a roadblock set up by taxi drivers in Acapulco:
Pemex’s operations have also been affected by the ongoing unrest.
On Tuesday, the company said that blockades at fuel terminals in Chihuahua, Morelos, and Durango had caused a “critical situation” for fuel distribution in those states. Pemex also said that if blockades continued, operations at airports in Chihuahua and Baja California would be affected.
G500, a firm that operates 1,800 gas stations around the country, said it would close some stations on Wednesday because of insecurity, and said that all of its outlets could shutter for the same reason.
Mexican officials have condemned the looting and acts of vandalism.
“These acts are outside the law and have nothing to do with peaceful protest nor freedom of expression,” Deputy Interior Minister Rene Juarez said on Wednesday.
The unrest also apparently has a cyber dimension.
Authorities in Mexico City are reportedly investigating 1,500 fake social media accounts over allegations they incited panic and made false reports.
Nearly 500 false accounts, or bots, on Twitter and WhatsApp were blamed for stirring panic and encouraging vandalism using the hashtag #SaqueaUnWalmart, or #LootAWalmart.
Mexicans on both sides – in the streets and in the government – seem unlikely to back down.
While the subsidy was regressive – largely benefiting the typically well-off people who own cars – and drove consumption of fuel higher, which in turn contributed to pollution, popular anger persists.
“People are mad because gas prices affect them directly, in their pockets,” Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the Center for the Teaching and Research in Economics, told The Guardian. “It affects them at a very direct and individual level they don’t seem willing to accept.”
“It’s an economic issue,” Manuel Lopez, a mechanic who had to sell his car amid Mexico’s economic doldrums, told The Guardian.
“Salaries are not very good. If gasoline goes up, it provokes an inflation in the cost of the items we consume daily,” he said. “The first thing that gets hit are people’s pocketbooks.”
The farm activist group El Barzon, which has led protests in several parts of the country, said that tax breaks or government support for truck drivers would do little to allay the backlash.
“The wave of anger and discontent among Mexicans cannot be held back,” the group told the Associated Press.
Government officials, led by President Enrique Pena Nieto, have defended the price increase, justifying it as a way to safeguard public finances.
Energy Secretary Pedro Joaquin Coldwell said the move was necessary, if unpleasant.
“Certainly it is a bitter measure but necessary because the other way would seriously affect public finances and social programs, very important for the most vulnerable population in the country,” he said on Thursday.
Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade said the price increases would mean government funds would no longer go toward keeping Mexican fuel prices artificially low, warding off spending cuts on things like health and education. (Some have noted that the Mexican government likely overspends on some areas of the budget, creating shortfalls.)
Deputy Finance Minister Miguel Messmacher said earlier this week that because 30% of Mexican households consume about 70% of the gasoline, “we didn’t consider it good public policy to maintain an artificially low price for fuels.”
On December 29, before the hike went into effect, Environment Secretary Rafael Pacchiano defended the increase, saying on Twitter that the benefit of the subsidies had accrued to the richest segments of the population – a conclusion reached by other researchers as well.
“As president of the republic, I understand the irritation and the anger that there is among the population in general and among distinct sectors of our society,” Pena Nieto said on Wednesday. “I share that irritation that accompanies precisely the application of this measure. Let me say that, without doubt, this measure [is] an action that nobody would have wanted to take.”
Pena Nieto added that not allowing the price increase would be more damaging to the country’s economic stability in the long term.
He also denied that the price increase is a result of the landmark energy reform his government pushed through in 2013, which he repeatedly said would not lead to fuel price increases. Rather, he said, the increase came in response to the rise of gas prices internationally – a point echoed by Meade.
The Mexican government has increased fuel prices in the past but typically did so gradually throughout the year. Prices were capped in 2016, however, preventing price increases during the latter half of that year.
“These things always generate annoyance,” Messmacher said on January 2. “We’re quite clear that it’s an unpopular measure.”
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