June 19, 2008 / 4:45 PM / in 10 years

U.S. motorists brave Mexico border violence for fuel

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - U.S. motorists are risking rampant drug violence in Mexico to drive over the border and fill their tanks with cheap Mexican fuel, some even coming to blows over gas shortages and long queues.

A sign at a gas station shows the price of gasoline in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico, June 19, 2008. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

The gap between Mexico’s subsidized gasoline and record U.S. prices has made it well worth making the trip, and U.S. drivers are even shrugging off the dangers of Mexico’s drug war which sees almost daily shootings in border towns.

Some say they can save up to $100 a month by filling up every two weeks in Mexico. The extra demand is causing shortages at hundreds of Mexico’s border gas stations, some of which are starting to ration fuel.

“It’s worth taking the risk even with the violence,” said a retired California engineer named Terry, who declined to give his surname, as he filled his red Ford pick-up truck in Tijuana, over the border from San Diego. “I know they could kill me or kidnap me, but the cost of filling my tank in the United States is just too much,” he said.

Mexico’s subsidized gasoline — around $1.40 cheaper per gallon than in the United States — is a huge draw as average U.S. pump prices hit an unprecedented $4 a gallon ($1.06 a liter). In West Coast cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, prices are over $4.50 a gallon.

Savings on diesel in Mexico are even greater. A gallon of diesel in southern Arizona cost $4.64 this week, compared to around $2.25 in Mexican border towns.

As pump attendants struggled to keep up with dozens of vehicles lining up for fuel, U.S. and Mexican drivers traded insults. A few even brawled as they waited for hours in searing heat this week in the rough border city of Tijuana.

“I am not budging until I get to the pump. I don’t care what anyone says, I’ve been waiting for two hours,” said Jaime Rosales from Southern California, at a gas station where buses, trucks and cars all vied to get to the pumps.

Even hours of waiting to cross back into the United States at the busy border crossings are not putting Americans off despite misgivings about having to produce proof of U.S. citizenship to return home under new travel rules.

“I was on the point of giving up, but then you start thinking about all the waiting time and the cost of fuel. You’ll see me here again,” said a Mexican-American from Southern California who gave his name as Rov A.

RUNNING DRY

Nor is a recent surge in drug cartel killings — which has scared away border tourists — discouraging U.S. motorists.

Shootouts and murders by cartel hitmen have escalated across northern Mexico this year as gangs from the Pacific state of Sinaloa try to destroy Tijuana’s Arellano Felix cartel and take over lucrative smuggling routes into California.

More than 1,400 people have died in drug violence across the country since the start of the year, around 300 of them in Tijuana, as an army-led crackdown puts more pressure on drug gang rivalries for turf and protection rings.

Tourists who used to come for everything from dental work to prostitutes have deserted Mexican border cities as gun battles erupt in broad daylight on busy avenues and gangs dump bodies and severed heads on streets.

Yet such is the clamor for cheap Mexican fuel that Tijuana officials say the city and surrounding areas are running out of diesel after truckloads of fuel due from the oil-producing state of Veracruz were delayed this week.

U.S. motorists are filling up fuel containers as well as their tanks, the Tijuana gas stations association says.

“We have very little reserves left. We are trying to ration sales because we can see the situation is causing outbreaks of violence,” said association head Joaquin Avina.

“There are areas without a single liter of gasoline because so many people from Southern California are making unusually big fuel purchases,” Avina said.

Avina said state energy monopoly Pemex has told officials that gasoline trucks from Veracruz had engine trouble and would not reach Tijuana until Saturday.

City officials say diesel-dependent transport and trash collection trucks are also being hit by the fuel shortages.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Arizona; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Chris Baltimore

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