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Analysis: Mexican Gas Price Hike, Fear of Trump Trigger Protests

Huge and sometimes violent protests against a sharp rise in gas prices have swept Mexico — but they are about much more than gasoline.
Image: Man urges fellow demonstrators to calm down as they vandalise the Government Palace
A man urges fellow demonstrators to calm down as they vandalize the Government Palace during a protest against the rising prices of gasoline at the Macroplaza in Monterrey on Jan. 5.DANIEL BECERRIL / Reuters

Huge and occasionally violent protests have gripped Mexico since the beginning of the year.

Image: Police forcibly remove demonstrators
Police forcibly remove protesters from a rally against the price of gas in Mexico City on Jan. 4.Marco Ugarte / AP

Gas price hikes of some 20 percent imposed on Jan. 1 may have sparked the demonstrations but they are about much more than the cost of refueling a car or cooking a meal.

They are being propelled by anger at President Enrique Peña Nieto's handling of the economy and widespread corruption, as well as his treatment of Donald Trump.

“There was simmering discontent across a number of fronts,” according to Professor Halbert Jones of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.

The intensity of the protests was “compounded by the fact that it is not just this issue — it is broader dissatisfaction with the government and anxiety with what developments in the U.S. mean for Mexico," he said.

In other words — what will happen to Mexico once Trump becomes president of the United States?

'A Catastrophe'

Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda did not mince words after Trump was elected, calling his selection “a catastrophe” for his country.

“I don’t think there is another more appropriate word,” he added during an interview on Nov. 9.

More than a year before the election, Trump’s comments and a slew of campaign promises raised the alarm.

The Republican promised to renegotiate or even scrap a joint trade agreement between the United States and Mexico and impose hefty tariffs on goods made south of the border.

He has also pledged to deport millions of undocumented migrants, and not only build a wall along the 2,000-mile border between the two countries but make Mexico pay for it.

On Wednesday during his first press conference since being elected, Trump again said he'd build a barrier between the countries. As before, the official Mexican reaction has been been a relatively muted promise not to pay for the wall when it is built.

Related: 'Daring and Crazy Guy': World Weighs In On Trump Presser

Trump’s confrontational stance on Mexico was a cornerstone of his campaign from day one.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems," he said in a speech at Trump Tower in New York on June 16, 2015, when he announced he was entering the race. "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people,” he said the day he announced he was entering the Republican presidential primary.

U.S. presidential nominee Trump and Mexico's President Pena Nieto finish a press conference in Mexico City
Donald Trump and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto walk out after finishing a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico, on Aug. 31.REUTERS

Instead of condemning Trump for these comments, the Mexican government reached out to the candidate. And at the end of August Trump visited Peña Nieto at his official residence at the Mexican president's invitation.

Peña Nieto did not criticize his American guest — something many Mexicans craved if not expected. The two appeared together and made conciliatory and respectful comments.

After the meeting the president tweeted to say that he had "made clear" to Trump that Mexico would not pay for a wall between the two countries.

But if Mexican officials hoped they had won over candidate Trump, and convinced him to change his tune, they were soon disappointed.

Within hours, Trump was repeating previous comments about illegal migrants during a barnstorming Arizona speech.

Peña Nieto, whose approval ratings are languishing at below 25 percent, was ridiculed and lambasted nationally for inviting Trump. The official who suggested and made the meeting possible, Luis Videgaray, was ousted as finance minister.

Videgaray, as a primary author of sweeping reforms of the energy sector ending a decades-old monopoly by state-run oil giant Pemex, is also linked to the rise in the price of gas in the minds of many.

"The number-one argument for convincing Mexican people was that gas was going to go down," according to John Ackerman, a law professor, columnist and prominent critic of the government.

While arguing for these reforms, Peña Nieto repeatedly promised that gas prices would not rise.

Gas price price rises were "the straw that broke the camel’s back," added Ackerman, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review. "When you link this to Trump you have a lot of fear that if Mexico doesn't defend itself the economy is going to go down the tubes."

Photos: Outrage Across Mexico as Gas Hike Sparks Protests, Looting

So "these protests are not just about gas — Mexico has been a tinderbox for a long time," he said.

Ackerman tied the recent protests to mass demonstrations that swept Mexico after the disappearance of 43 teaching students in 2014, which became one of the highest-profile human rights cases in the country's history.

Image: Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, listens as Luis Videgaray
President Enrique Peña Nieto, right, listens as Luis Videgaray, left, takes the oath of office as Mexico's new Foreign Relations Secretary, at the Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City on Jan. 4.Marco Ugarte / AP

Ackerman pointed to a handful of state governors and ex-governors who have gone on the run suspected of having pocketed millions by money laundering, graft and links to the criminal gangs, all examples of the rampant official corruption that has also angered the population.

"The general impression is not an impression — it is the reality of impunity," he said.

Turbulent January

Trump's words are not abstract threats for the United States' southern neighbor.

Between 1965 and 2015, some 16 million Mexicans migrated to the U.S., according to Pew — one of the great movements of people in the last century.

And of the 11.1 million unauthorized migrants in the U.S. in 2014, more than half were Mexican, Pew reports.

Millions of Mexicans have relatives in the U.S. — or have spent time there themselves — so Trump’s words alarm many.

Image: Man urges fellow demonstrators to calm down as they vandalise the Government Palace
A man urges fellow demonstrators to calm down as they vandalize the Government Palace during a protest against the rising prices of gasoline at the Macroplaza in Monterrey on Jan. 5.DANIEL BECERRIL / Reuters

Some are also conscious the country lost much of its territory to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, and Trump's perceived bullying taps into deep-seated fears that America is still trying to push around its southern neighbor.

More recently, Trump pressured a number of companies to halt expansion plans in Mexico.

On Jan. 3, Ford announced it was scrapping plans to build a new $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico. While the move was hailed as a victory for the president-elect, the move did not reverse the central decision the car maker made in April.

Still, Trump’s apparent ability to convince companies to change course has spooked financial markets, with the peso hitting historic lows against the dollar.

On Monday, new data showed that December's annual inflation rose at the fastest pace in two years, promising further pain for the average Mexican.

And to make matters worse for so many, the government does not appear to be standing up to Trump — on the contrary, according to columnist Arturo Balderas.

“Until now, our government has not had a clear and timely response to [Trump’s proposed] draconian tariffs ... to defend the access of cars made in Mexico to the American market,” he wote in a column in La Jornada newspaper.

If a strong response is not being prepared, he warned, a "turbulent January could last much longer than a month."