Mingled in the humorous tirades the Mexican presidential hopefuls poked at one another during the “pre-candidacy” period, which ran from Dec. 14 to Feb. 11, there were several hints as to what the hardcore debate issues will be starting April 1, when the real official campaign begins. One of the leading topics will be President Enrique Peña Nieto’s still-highly controversial energy reform, as well as the destiny of the government-owned Mexican oil industry.

The first stone in this upcoming debate was cast by National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Last week, he clearly pointed in that direction during a rally in the central Mexican state of Puebla, recently infamous for being the place where one of the main Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) oil ducts has been targeted by fuel thieves who have pierced literally thousands of holes in the pipeline to extract gasoline, diesel and  even raw oil. Thieves have found that stolen fuel known in Mexican slang as “huachicol” sells quickly on the black market.

Fuels thieves have been labeled with the moniker of “huachicoleros,” an old slang word used in the past to denote illegal liquor manufacturers who produced “huachicol,” or moonshine booze.

Using the term “huachicolero,” candidate AMLO aimed a direct arrow at Peña Nieto, claiming that the bandits stealing from Pemex were nothing compared to “The Great Huachicolero” himself. AMLO was referring to Peña Nieto’s energy reforms, which the president bulldozed through Congress in 2013 and  2014, opening up the previously nationalized and government-owned oil industry to foreign investment in the areas of exploration, extraction and, potentially, refineries.

AMLO’s snide remark about the president definitely hit home. Peña Nieto’s heart, as the old Beatles song says, “went boom,” but not in an amorous way. Fearing that his adversary’s new nickname for him, “The Great Huachicolero,” might catch on and continue damaging his already-floundering popularity, Peña Nieto took immediate action.

Almost immediately, Peña Nieto’s  chief spokesman, Eduardo Sánchez, summoned the media to an impromptu press conference to tell reporters that one of the candidates – without mentioning AMLO directly – was spreading around “fake news.”

“That statement shows at least a lack of adequate knowledge on the issue,” Sánchez said.

“To confuse the theme of fuel thefts with energy reform is like confusing adding with subtracting.”

Sánchez went on to emphasize the vast difference between spiking a pipeline and wait for refined fuel to spurt out and venturing into the business of deep-sea drilling, or extracting oil and refining it.

But Sánchez’ explanation  took off like a lead balloon, both with reporters and the Mexican public, both of whom witnessed how the Peña Nieto government maneuvered its way through a labyrinth of misinformation and misrepresentation in its push to get the reforms passed.

In short, Peña Nieto’s feelings were clearly bruised when AMLO’s called him “The Great Huachicolero.” It is a fact that the oil issue was at the heart of the 2012 election debates and definitely will be back as a key issue in the 2018 election race.

AMLO’s hunch, however, may be right. Ever since the energy reform opened up the Gulf of Mexico’s deep-sea oil fields to profit-sharing foreign investment, there has been serious doubt among the country’s voters as to whether this was the right direction to take in the nation’s energy industry.

Also, nobody in Mexico has forgotten that Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rejected public demands to hold a referendum on the energy reform during the 2015 mid-term election, an act that was upheld by the Mexican Supreme Court as “unconstitutional” in allegations that led AMLO to accuse the judges of being “puppets” of – to use AMLO’s favorite phrase to describe Peña Nieto and the mighty PRI political establishment – “the mafia in power.”

Another hint that Pemex and the energy reform will come up in the presidential debates  – when they are officially launched – is the destiny of the now-flailing Pemex conglomerate. One hot-button issue is that AMLO wants Pemex to build refineries under national schemes that were shelved by Peña Nieto that would have allowed for Mexican oil – a one-time sale item – to not be sold in its raw state abroad but refined at home. The government’s pre-candidate, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, claims that it is cheaper to buy fuels abroad than to produce them at home. That makes this a debatable issue.

In any case, based the shadowboxing we have heard and seen so far, AMLO is sure to keep pressing on the sensitive oil issue and the blatant fact that, once upon a time in his campaign to push through his oil reform fairytale, President Peña Nieto promised Mexicans cheaper gasoline. Instead, much to the chagrin of a plethora of disgruntled fuelusers – all of whom are voters – Mexican gas prices continue to rise on a daily basis, as every new visit to the pump is more expensive than the last.

So, you can put oil at the top of the list of topics that will be on debate during the future electoral campaign. There will be others, for sure, but for now, it is front and center, and, unfortunately Peña Nieto, the president has had to resort to claims of “fake news” to defend himself and his energy reform packages from attackers who are only pointing out the obvious.


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