Mexico gasoline protests: president insists there’s no alternative to price hike


At least 987 people had been arrested and four people killed after the fifth day of violent demonstration and looting over a 20% hike in gasoline prices

Mexicos beleaguered president Enrique Pea Nieto has once again become the target of public anger after attempting to defend a 20% hike in gasoline prices that has provoked a wave of violent demonstration and looting across the country this week.

At least 987 people had been arrested after the fifth day of unrest, which has spread to at least 14 of Mexico 32 states, according to the Animal Politco news site.

Officials said three people were killed amidst looting in the eastern state of Veracruz on Thursday and a police officer was killed on Wednesday while trying to prevent robberies at a gas station in Mexico City.

In a televised address to the nation on Thursday night, Pea Nieto insisted that there was no alternative to the hike announced on 1 January as part of government deregulation of the energy sector.

Allowing gasoline to rise to its international price is a difficult change, but as president, my job is to precisely make difficult decisions now, in order to avoid worse consequences in the future, he said. Keeping petrol prices artificially low would mean taking money away from the poorest Mexicans, and giving it to those who have the most.

Pea Nieto, who took office in 2012, has the lowest approval ratings of any Mexican president in over two decades and has been widely criticised over his handling of corruption scandals, the 2014 disappearance of 43 student teachers, and Mexicos sluggish economic performance, despite having passed reforms that he promised would bring lower energy prices.

The gasolinazo as the hike has become known has made him the target of further sustained public anger. During his speech in which he also vowed to build a positive relationship with the incoming Donald Trump administration Pea Nieto asked the Mexican public what would you have done? in his situation.

The phrase quickly became a trending topic on Twitter as furious members of the public and opposition leaders offered the president their advice. I wouldnt have betrayed Lzaro Crdenas and his legacy, said Guadalajara mayor Enrique Alfaro, referring to the former president who nationalised Mexicos oil industry in 1938. I wouldnt have lied to the Mexican people.

Pea Nieto also announced that high-ranking federal officials would take a 10% pay cut, but that is unlikely to assuage the concerns of the public after the peso hit a record low against the dollar this week.

The petrol hike is also expected to have a knock-on effect on consumer goods, public transport and other services. Uber announced on Thursday that it was raising its rates by 7.5 to 18.2% across different Mexican cities after analysing the rise in petrol prices.

Protesters have responded to the hikes by blocking highways and petrol stations across the country, while a major public transport strike in Guadalajara on Wednesday led the police and members of the public to pull together by offering lifts to stranded commuters.

Demonstrations in the northern city of Monterrey turned violent on Thursday when protesters tried to force their way into the government palace, reportedly smashing stained glass windows and setting off fireworks and pepper spray.

Demonstrators hold up placards during a protest at the Macroplaza in Monterrey on Thursday. Photograph: Daniel Becerril/Reuters

The sense of chaos and panic has been heightened by legions of bots encouraging looting and spreading disinformation on social media. Humberto Lozano, president of the National Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism in Mexico City, said in a press conference that false rumours of looting spread via social media led 20,000 small businesses to close in the capital on Wednesday, causing losses of 52 million pesos ($2.4m).

Mexico Citys cyber-police force said it was investigating the false rumours and had identified over 1,500 accounts responsible for causing incendiary phrases like ransack a Walmart to trend on Twitter.

Alberto Escorcia, a blogger who specialises in investigating the use of bots in Mexico, warned that there was a danger that the propagation of threats and misinformation could discredit and distract from the many legitimate protests occurring across Mexico. Theyre encouraging people to commit violent acts and to loot shops. Theyre calling on people to take Congress on Monday, he said. These are criminals who are practically promoting terrorism, this has nothing to do with social protest.

Escorcia warned that further violence was possible over the coming days and lamented that Pea Nietos message had done little to reduce the tensions caused by the hike and exacerbated by the bots. I cant be sure whos behind this because they cover their tracks very well, he added. Weve had five very difficult days and it seems like someone wants the situation in Mexico to boil over.

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