(REPORT) — Protests over a double-digit hike in gasoline prices in Mexico continue in at least 22 states of the country, officials said on Friday, as they confirmed that the wave of violent lootings and blockades has left three people dead and at least 700 arrested.
Business leaders estimate that some 1,000 shops and companies have been looted or vandalized this week as others closed over fears of being robbed.
Protesters argue that the government’s decision to raise fuel prices by up to 20 percent has no justification in an oil-rich country, but the government insists that the move responds to international prices and not a result of the government’s neoliberal reforms.
On Thursday night President Enrique Peña Nieto used a nationally televised New Year’s address to defend the increase, again.
“It is a difficult change, but as president, it is precisely my responsibility to take difficult decisions in the present to avoid major problems in the future,” said Peña Nieto, whose approval rating has fallen below 23 percent.
The unpopular leader said that keeping the same prices would have cost the government US$9.3 billion, forcing the suspension of health care and welfare programs.
“I ask you, what would you have done?” he said.
While acknowledging the widespread anger, Peña Nieto said he would forge ahead with the liberalized or deregulated price scheme, which removes fuel subsidies and allow gasoline prices to be determined by prevailing international prices.
Meanwhile, the state-run oil company PEMEX has denounced blockades on roads that give access to fuel storage terminals and has warned that if the situation continues it could trigger a crisis of shortages and aggravate the problem.
Some have speculated that the looting and vandalism has been led by allegedly “infiltrated” groups, in a move that staunch critics of Peña Nieto’s administration claim is intended to create chaos in the country and undermine social protests, setting the basis for the targeting of activists as criminals.
The increases, which applied to both gasoline and diesel, will subsequently raise food, transportation and other costs, analysts warn.