PRESIDIO, Texas — On Tuesday afternoon, dozens of cars, many with Mexican license plates, spilled out from the Exxon gas station onto the shoulder of the road as drivers waited in the sun to fill up on gas before returning home.
They're not crossing the border to save a few bucks at the pump, but because frontier towns like Presidio are the only places where the Mexicans from Chihuahua can buy gas in recent days.
A mysterious gas shortage in the Mexican border state, home to some 4.8 million people, is pushing many Chihuahuenses to make the tedious cross-border journey into Texas to fill their tanks.
But Presidio, a town of 6,000 people and just three gas stations, wasn't prepared to receive the long line of empty-tanked vehicles snaking up from Mexico.
The temporary gas crisis in Mexico, which has turned into a temporary boon for gas station owners in Presidio, shows how neighboring border communities lean on each other in hard times. ‘Cause that's what neighbors are for.
Still, it's one thing to borrow a cup of sugar, and another thing to ask for 8,000 gallons of gasoline.
Tom’s Service Station, an affiliate of Texaco, ran out of gas just two hours after it opened on Tuesday morning.
“We sold about 1,000 gallons of gas between 8:30 and 10:30,” said Norberto Ornelas, the owner of the service station.
He says on an average day he sells about 400 gallons, and usually orders new shipments of petroleum every 10 days. But due to the unexpected lineup of vehicles from Mexico, Ornelas had to place an emergency order for a next-day delivery.
The town’s Exxon station also ran out of gas, and by the time a new shipment arrived late Tuesday morning a long queue of thirsty cars was already lining the sidewalk, while the town’s constable directed traffic at the entrance. A couple hours after the tanker truck arrived to refuel the Exxon station with 8,000 gallons, the pumps had already drained more than one-third of it into the waiting cars.
Javier Parada, a Kentucky resident, said he had been vacationing in Chihuahua before he had to cut his trip short due to the gas shortages there. Parada yelled irritably at the man in the car before him, who stalled briefly after he’d finished pumping gas.
“I’ve been waiting for one-and-a-half hours,” Parada told me when he finally got his turn. “There’s no gas in all of Chihuahua.”
“It’s a huge problem,” said Rigo Saenz, who drove over from Ojinaga, a Mexican city of 22,000 just across the border from Presidio. He says local media outlets in Chihuahua are reporting that the state would be without gas until Friday.
But it could be longer than that. Ernesto Laphond, president of the union that represents some of the biggest gas stations in Mexico, said his group expects gas supplies won't return to normal until Sunday.
Laphond says the gas shortage is due to a number of factors, including technical problems at a Mexican gas refinery, followed by a “panic buying” —a sudden rush on the pumps that doubled the normal demand for gas.
Adding to the problem, he said, was the untimely closing of 20 local gas stations due to an ongoing internal legal dispute.
But there might be something else going on as well. Mexican news outlets claim state oil company Pemex has pinched Chihuahua's gas supplies by half since early June. And some people suspect dirty politics is at play.
Several Mexicans who made the trip to Presidio to buy gas on Tuesday said they suspect the choke in their local gas line is due to political frictions caused by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which recently lost the governor's seat there to its chief political rival, the National Action Party (PAN).
But whatever the case is in Mexico, the gas station owners in the struggling city of Presidio are enjoying the endless line up of people waiting to hand them money.
“This thing was surprising,” said Ornelas, rotating a tire at his service station. “It’s good for business.”