A couple of weeks ago we highlighted the protests that had engulfed Mexico after the finance ministry announced plans to raise gasoline prices by 20.1% starting January 1st. Amid the chaos, the country’s powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel threatened to to burn down gas stations as retribution for taking advantage of “the majority of the people who don’t make even a minimum wage.”
But before readers blow this off as just another protest by an angry population which fails to grasp the “global deflationary collapse” while focusing on “fringe, outlier events” – at least in the words of central bankers – things suddenly got serious when none other than the country’s powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel has entered the fray, threatening to burn gas stations in response to the price hikes, according to Jalisco authorities cited by TeleSur.
“They are speculating in order to obtain million dollar profits from the majority of the people who don’t make even a minimum wage, we have already realized that the (shortage) of fuel is because dealers don’t want to sell fuel unless they can do so at a profit, all of our people are now ready to start the mission,” the Mexican drug cartel stated in a WhatsApp message circulating in Jalisco.
“The CJNG, in support of the working class, commits itself to making burn all the gasoline stations that to December 30 of the current year, at 10:00 p.m.” — before the price increases go into effect — “have not normalized the sale of fuel at the fair price,” the message said, according to the Mexican news outlet Aristegui Noticias.
Alas, after the knee jerk reaction to riot subsided, which would have only resulted in gas prices soaring even higher anyway, Mexico’s drug cartels did what any clever black market entrepreneurial organization would do: they decided to steal the gasoline and sell it themselves. With a modest upfront capital investment of $5,000 – $8,000, the cartels have realized they can tap directly into state-owned gas pipelines and withdraw seemingly unlimited supplies of gasoline which they then sell along the highway at a discount to official government prices. It’s a win-win situation whereby the drug cartels make 100% profit margins and citizens get “cheap” fuel.
The black market is booming. Several states experienced gasoline shortages at the end of last year as more thieves tapped into state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) pipelines. The pilfered fuel was sold to drivers hoping to save money. Pipeline theft in 2015 increased sevenfold, to more than 5,500 taps, from just 710 in 2010. Pemex attributes the company’s 12-year slide in crude production in part to the growth in illegal taps.
The drug cartels have turned to fuel theft as a side business worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and crime groups focused solely on gasoline robbery have sprung up, says Alejandro Schtulmann, president of Empra, a political-risk consulting firm in Mexico City. “You only need to invest $5,000 or $8,000 to buy some specific equipment, and the outcome of that is huge earnings.”
Fuel theft creates a vicious cycle: The theft increases costs for Pemex and makes the official gasoline supply more scarce, contributing to higher prices for legal consumers. Theft amounts to about $1 billion a year, says Luis Miguel Labardini, an energy consultant at Marcos y Asociados and senior adviser to Pemex’s chief financial officer in the 1990s. “If Pemex were a public company, they would be in financial trouble just because of the theft of fuel,” he says. “It’s that bad.”
Of course, there are some losers in all of this as Enrique Peña Nieto has basically become the least popular President in Mexico since one-party ruled ended in 2000.
All this is creating headaches for Enrique Peña Nieto, whose popularity was already the lowest of any president since one-party rule ended in 2000. Peña Nieto is limited to a single term, and polls show potential candidates from his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) trail populist opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the race for the mid-2018 presidential election. López Obrador has made the jump in gasoline prices his latest rallying cry against the administration.
“This is definitely going to have consequences for the PRI,” says Jorge Chabat, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a university based in Mexico City. “Frankly, I don’t see any way that they can win in 2018.”
State-owned Pemex is also one of the losers with the company expected to lose about $1 billion to theft this year…but no one really pays taxes anyway so it shouldn’t be that big a deal.
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