Mexico fuel theft curtailed, secret 'hose' found in refinery

MEXICO CITY,  (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said a military-assisted crackdown had dramatically reduced fuel theft and uncovered a secret pipe that was used to siphon gasoline out of one of the country's refineries.

Such fuel theft has dropped from 787 truck loads per day to 177 since thousands of soldiers were sent to state-oil company Pemex's installations last month, Lopez Obrador said at a daily news conference.

The crackdown on years of mounting fuel theft is the leftist government's first major move against corruption and violence after taking office on Dec. 1, but risks angering consumers and hurting the economy.

By closing off pipelines and refineries while it traced leakages, the government has triggered shortfalls and long lines at gas stations in at least six states, including Guanajuato, a major car-manufacturing hub in central Mexico.

Criminal groups and others who have tapped pipelines have long been blamed for billions of dollars of losses to public coffers over the past few years, but Lopez Obrador said last month that far more fuel was being stolen directly from Pemex installations by an internal network of corrupt officials.

Lopez Obrador said the military had discovered a 3-kilometer (1.9 mile)-long "hose" that was funneling fuel out of storage tanks at the Salamanca refinery in the central state of Guanajuato into a secret storage area.

He admitted there were complaints about the shortages, but said they were not widespread, and urged an end to "panic" buying and said shortages were an issue of distribution, not supply.

"This is not in vain," Lopez Obrador said. "We are going to end corruption."

Local media showed images of tanker trucks, escorted by federal police, heading from oil-rich costal states to the country's interior.

It was not immediately clear what impact the crackdown will have on imports of fuel. Mexico is the top export destination for U.S. energy products, importing about 1.4 million barrels every day, or nearly a quarter of all U.S. overseas sales. (Reporting by Veronica Gomez and Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bernadette Baum)

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