Three Pemex execs to be tried for fuel theft in Mexico

Motorists wait in line for hours to buy gasoline at a Pemex service station in Guadalajara, Jalisco state on January 13, 2019. Three top executives face trial for fuel theft (AFP Photo/ULISES RUIZ)

Mexico City (AFP) - Mexico's attorney general said Monday that three top officials at state oil company Pemex will face trial for fuel theft, insisting a controversial government crackdown that has caused gasoline shortages is paying off.

Leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's administration is racing to contain the fallout from its decision to turn off several major oil pipelines in a bid to fight rampant fuel theft.

Illegal taps of Pemex pipelines cost Mexico an estimated $3 billion in 2017. But the government's strategy to fight the problem has led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including Mexico City, forcing people to queue for hours -- sometimes days -- to fuel up their vehicles.

Lopez Obrador, who took office on December 1, has vowed to keep up the fight and asked Mexicans to be patient. Speaking at the president's daily press conference, Attorney General Alejandro Gertz said the crackdown was making progress.

"We are now prosecuting the case of three top Pemex officials ... who were in charge of pipeline management," Gertz said.

He said he could not identify the three suspects because the case was still under investigation, adding that the date for their initial court appearance was expected to be set soon.

Five people are also being investigated for money laundering linked to fuel theft, including a former lawmaker and an ex-Pemex executive, officials said.

In all, authorities have opened 1,700 individual investigations for fuel theft, which became a massive black-market industry in Mexico under previous governments, involving powerful drug cartels and corrupt Pemex insiders.

Lopez Obrador's government has shut off key pipelines until they can be fully secured and deployed the army to guard Pemex production facilities.

Tanker trucks are being used to deliver fuel in the meantime, but experts say there are not nearly enough of them.

Mexico City residents woke up to a second week of fuel shortages Monday, though lines at service stations appeared shorter than the previous week.

Lopez Obrador called on private companies to step up gasoline imports, suggesting they bore some of the blame for the shortages.

"We want to speak with those (companies) that have import permits to find out why they haven't been making the authorized imports," he said.

The roots of the fuel theft problem run deep in Mexico, where the practice -- known locally as "huachicoleo," or moonshining -- is big business for some communities.

Over the weekend, residents of the town of Santa Ana Ahuehuepan, in the central state of Hidalgo, kidnapped three soldiers participating in an anti-fuel theft operation, beat them and held them for several hours.

But Lopez Obrador so far retains broad support: 89 percent of Mexicans back his crackdown on fuel theft, and his approval rating has even ticked up slightly, to 76 percent, according to a poll published Monday by newspaper El Financiero.