San Diego With a lower standard of living comes a lower cost on life's necessities. Hence, Tijuanenses pay less than San Diegans for housing, food, clothing, medical, and dental work. And savvy San Diegans sojourn south to take advantage of the savings. But one major necessity remains cheaper here in los estados: gasoline. And Mexican citizens who cross the border make a point of filling up on the north side before returning to Tijuana. Many come just to buy gasoline.
On a Wednesday afternoon at the Chevron station just off I-5 at the Via de San Ysidro exit, 9 of the 11 cars at the pumps bear Mexican license plates. One is a mid-'90s Ford Aerostar belonging to José Luis Morales, who has stopped here on his way back to his home in Ensenada. Asked why he's buying gas here and not in Mexico, he answers in Spanish, "Because it's more economical. Here it's $1.50 for a gallon. There," he waves his hand southward, "a gallon is about $2.50. It's a dollar more, and for lower-quality gasoline."
At the next pump island, Rafael Anaya stands filling his car. He has weathered la linea -- as Tijuanenses refer to the northbound border wait -- to fill his tank and run a few errands. He cites the same reasons Morales offered for buying gas north of the border, lower price and higher quality. "The gas in Mexico makes your engine go--" he simulates the sound of an engine knocking and pinging "--because it has water in it. And it doesn't go very far either. You'll fill up one day, and the next day you look at the gauge and say, 'Ay, it's half gone.' "
"With gasoline here," says David Quintero as he fills his van at the Exxon on San Ysidro Boulevard, "you get four or five more kilometers per liter than you do with the gas in Mexico."
Faced with the double whammy of higher prices and lower quality of gasoline at home, you'd think residents of Mexico would not only fill their vehicles' tanks with American gas but bring gas cans and fill those too. And it's rumored that many do just that, though Morales, Anaya, and Quintero all say they never do. But Jorge Vargas, who runs the customs offices at both Tijuana border crossings, warns, "We will confiscate any gas cans we find in vehicles crossing the border into Mexico. People can bring the gasoline inside each vehicle's tank, nothing else but that, no external containers."
Vargas describes the confiscations as "an economic measure in our law in order to provide a fair opportunity to do business for gas stations here in Mexico."
The ban on bringing containered gasoline into Mexico has always been the law, though it has been sporadically enforced. Now, Mexican customs officials are focusing on enforcement. The circumstance behind this is the growing disparity in the neighboring nations' gas prices. "It's always been cheaper in the United States," Vargas explains. "But in the United States the gas is getting lower, so the difference lately has been large. If you spend in the United States $20 to fill your tank, you might spend $40 in Mexico. Now, that changes all the time, but right now it's about twice as much. If we were to allow people to bring an unlimited amount of gas from the United States into Mexico, it would be unfair to the people who own gas stations here in Mexico. They wouldn't be able to compete."
That's because gas-station owners in Mexican border cities can't set the price of the gas they sell to compete with American gas stations. Each station is a franchise outlet of Pemex, the government-run petroleum company that sets the retail price of all gasoline sold in Mexico.
The ban on bringing containers full of gas into Mexico, Vargas says, is aimed mostly at the tens of thousands of Mexican citizens who cross the border daily for work, shopping, and cultural events. But it also applies to Americans making long-range trips or towing motorcycles and off-road vehicles to the many off-roading destinations in Baja California. "They're only allowed to bring the gas in the vehicles," Vargas repeats.
That's news to Jeff Andreoli, general manager of Instant Mexico Insurance. "I haven't heard anything to that effect," Andreoli says, "and we just got done doing the Baja 250 race. And when they go down for the Baja, a lot of those guys bring extra gas cans because they need it. And they didn't stop anybody that I know of. In fact, we go down there as support for the 250 race, and we always bring a couple of five-gallon cans in case somebody needs that gas somewhere. But we never have a problem crossing."
Andreoli says with his everyday customers, bringing gas cans into Mexico "is not an issue that we deal with. If they ask us directly about it, we would ask them, 'Well, where are you going? What are you doing?' We wouldn't tell people to bring their own extra cans. It's just not something that we recommend because of the volatility of it. You're out in the desert, it's hot, you're bouncing around..."
Andreoli adds, "The quality of the Pemex gas is not as good as the gas here. It's always been that way. The octane is lower and the overall composite of the gas is not as good. But you can get by with it. The cars that go down to Cabo San Lucas and back have to fill up with Mexican gas a few times, and they almost always get down there and back, no problem. Some of them might have a few knocks."
Vargas says that the amount of gas confiscated by his officials has been fairly low, about ten cans per day between both the Otay and San Ysidro crossings. Still, he says, his agents have been instructed to confiscate every gas can they see. And in some cases, when the volume of gasoline is determined to be "too great for personal use, we will presume they are planning to sell it." In that case, Vargas says, Mexican customs agents are authorized to confiscate the vehicle and arrest its owner, who may be prosecuted. It's a scenario that has yet to be played out in Tijuana. "I've heard," Vargas says, "of other customs in other cities confiscating vehicles because of the smuggling of gasoline on a commercial basis. But not in Tijuana."