MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's new president is facing the first big domestic battle of his month-old administration, taking on fuel thieves who drill into government pipelines and steal from distribution depots.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, has taken the unusual step of shutting off some particularly theft-prone pipelines carrying gasoline and diesel.
That has caused gasoline shortages and gas station closures in several states. But Lopez Obrador said Monday he isn't backing down.
"Let's see who gets tired first, the fuel thieves or us," Lopez Obrador said. "We know it is not going to be easy, but we are not going to back down."
Fuel theft is a $3 billion per year clandestine industry, so sophisticated that Lopez Obrador said the gangs had 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.
The pipeline shutdowns forced the government to switch temporarily to more distribution by tanker trucks. Lopez Obrador also has tightened the screws on fuel theft gangs, posting soldiers at fuel depots.
Lopez Obrador showed graphs Monday indicating the government was actually selling more gasoline after the pipeline shutdowns, suggesting that part of the demand has previously been met by stolen fuel.
The state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company said it was working to fix the supply problems, and stressed it had enough fuel to meet demand.
It said the gas shortages had affected mainly the central states of Hidalgo, Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Queretaro. Long lines formed at some of the few gas stations still operating over the weekend in place like Guanajuato, which is also a leader in illegal fuel taps.
"We are opening the pipelines back up carefully, and that means with the supervision of specialized personnel," Lopez Obrador said.
The government knows it is up against fierce, deeply ingrained gangs that often recruit entire neighborhoods to face off against police and military personnel during raids against the thefts.
"There are groups, not all the people, but some, that stage protests when the government carries out operations against pipeline taps," he said. "I am calling on all people not to participate in illegal acts. Illegal acts are never justified, but even less so when there are alternatives."
That was an apparent reference to Lopez Obrador's policy of increased wages, training programs and scholarships to help wean people away from illicit activities.