northbound san ysidro Saturday night. No headlights southbound. Pedro Kay NBC
Continuing unrest over gasoline price hikes in Mexico flared up at the Tijuana border crossing Saturday night as a large protest prompted U.S. authorities to block access into Mexico from San Ysidro for nearly four hours.
Southbound Interstates 5 and 805 began to reopen to motorists wanting to cross the border about 9:15 p.m., according to the California Highway Patrol.
The demonstration at Tijuana’s El Chaparral port of entry was among several held throughout Mexico Saturday — including a protest that turned violent outside a Rosarito Beach gasoline distribution center.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and the California Highway Patrol began diverting southbound I-5 and I-805 traffic about 5:30 p.m. “to support the government of Mexico’s inbound (vehicle inspection) operation,” said Customs spokesman Ralph DeSio.
Motorists were diverted onto state Route 905, and those wanting to enter Mexico were directed to the port of entry at Otay Mesa.
San Diego police noted 45 minutes later that southbound traffic on I-805 had backed up to Main Street in Chula Vista.
Pedestrians were still allowed to cross south.
Traffic going north from Mexico into the United States at the San Ysidro Port of Entry remained open and was being processed as usual, an official said.
Protesters had taken over inspection lanes of El Chaparral earlier in the afternoon.
Tijuana resident Mario Osuna said videos of the demonstration on Facebook showed several hundred protesters had swarmed Mexican customs officials at El Chaparral and were waving southbound travelers through without having to stop for vehicle inspections or to pay taxes on purchases made in the U.S.
Osuna said the protesters were not blocking cars.
“The situation down here is kind of getting out of control,” said Osuna, who works in online marketing and sales.
The protest was organized on Facebook by a Baja California student group, said demonstrator Israel Castellon, 30, a law student. He objected to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s move to deregulate the country’s energy sector, causing the gasoline price increase.
“Peña Nieto is not my president. He has carried out stupid reforms that have been harmful to citizens and benefited politicians or those from the privileged classes,” Castellon said. “Those who have been hurt are those who have the least.”
At 8:30 p.m., about three-dozen protesters who remained left the ghostly quiet port of entry. They sang the Mexican national anthem and chanted in Spanish: “The people united shall never be defeated.” They promised to return Sunday.
On Wednesday in Arizona, similar protests led Mexican authorities to close the border crossing at Nogales, Sonora, for southbound traffic.
Such hard border closures are rare and usually stem from officer-involved shootings, as was the case twice in 2014, or bomb scares.
In 2013, about 300 teachers from Tijuana protesting federal educational reforms blocked several northbound traffic lanes at San Ysidro for about an hour.
Also Saturday, in northern Rosarito Beach, a five-day protest outside the region’s main storage facility turned violent when a man drove a truck into a group of officers posted nearby.
Video showed a small yellow pickup driving straight into the line of riot police, then backing up and speeding off.
Eight officers were injured, two of them seriously, said Pedro Hernandez, commissioner for the Federal Police in Baja California. Hours after the early morning incident, hundreds of state, federal and local police descended on demonstrators who since Monday had been blocking access to the facility.
The final push to re-open the access road started at 4 p.m. and was over in 15 minutes as police with riot shields moved in on the demonstration of several hundred people. By day’s end, several dozen suspects were under arrest, though authorities did not immediately provide exact figures and did not say if any were injured.
By the time police moved in, nearly all of the region’s gas stations were forced to close their pumps. Tijuana’s Association of Gas Station Owners reported that 95 percent of the stations had no gasoline to sell.
“We have taken back control of the avenue, and that was important,” said Enrique Mendez, a state official, who had been at the scene since 3 a.m. “People have a right to demonstrate peacefully … but citizens who need gasoline in their cars to get to school and their jobs also have rights.”
Protests have broken out across Mexico this week following a gasoline price hike that went into effect on Jan. 1.
Gov. Francisco Vega de la Madrid plans to seek the lowering of prices in Baja California, a move that he said is key to maintaining the region’s economy and preventing large numbers of consumers from crossing the border to buy less expensive gasoline in California.
The Baja California Human Rights Commission said it was looking into alleged aggressions by police against three journalists covering the Rosarito Beach demonstration earlier in the day, including a correspondent for the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, a correspondent for the website Animal Politico and a photographer for the Tijuana newspaper Frontera.
Several of the suspects in custody resisted arrest. “I wasn’t doing anything,” said Eleazar Dominguez, 37, a resident of Spring Valley who said he had just been watching the unfolding events when he was taken into custody.
Largely peaceful protests against the fuel price increases continued elsewhere in Mexico Saturday, and looting seen earlier in the week largely subsided. But nervousness remained.
Officials in Veracruz, one of the states hardest-hit by the looting on Wednesday and Thursday, said some neighborhood groups had begun to form patrols of residents armed with staves or machetes to ward off looters.
Veracruz Gov. Miguel Angel Yunes Linares said 532 people had been detained in his state alone and that social rumors of further looting — apparently unfounded — had caused “an artificial psychosis.”
He said that in the northern part of the state, given this psychosis, “the neighbors decided to arm themselves with staves, machetes, creating the impression that there were armed groups of criminals.”
Yunes Linares said the government was trying to convince residents to stop such patrolling.
The Interior Department reported a total of more than 1,500 people have been detained for looting or disturbances nationwide since protests began early in the week.
It is unclear how many have been charged. Hundreds of stores were looted, mainly on Wednesday and Thursday. Police protection of stores has been stepped up since.
The federal police reported continued protests, and some highway blockages, on Saturday.
Thousands of people marched down main avenues in the western city of Guadalajara Saturday to protest the increases, which are part of a government effort to deregulate fuel prices.
Despite persistent rumors that political interests might have egged on the looters to smear the gas-hike protesters, Yunes Linares said there was “no evidence that political parties were involved.” He said authorities were investigating whether criminal gangs had taken part.