MEXICO CITY — The invitations pop up on Facebook as though they are for block parties.
At 3 p.m. Thursday, one reads, gather to loot the Soriana supermarket in an eastern suburb of Mexico City. You need to bring only one thing, the invitation notes: “something to cover your face.”
A wave of lootings, roadblocks and street demonstrations is sweeping Mexico as protests over higher gas prices rage for a fifth consecutive day. Vandals have struck dozens of locations across several states, primarily in poor neighborhoods where anger over recent increases in the prices of gas, electricity and other basic goods are felt most acutely. Looters have ransacked Oxxos, the ubiquitous convenience stores, and hauled flat-screen televisions, washing machines, cellphones and other goods and appliances out of big-box outlets.
The fear of looting, including threats on social media to target specific stores, prompted thousands of businesses in Mexico City to shut down Wednesday. The president of the National Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism, Humberto Lozano, said that nearly 20,000 stores closed in Mexico City, costing more than $2 million in sales during a normally popular holiday shopping period, according to the Milenio news site. A gas station group said that about 400 stations would also close across the country because of vandalism.
In response, police and soldiers have swarmed these big-box stores to restore order, arresting dozens of people. An association for the stores said Wednesday that about 79 had been looted — and there is no sign the vandals will stop.
Protesters have also blocked major highways, seized gas stations and burned tires. Pemex, the state oil company, said that blockades around fuel depots in Durango, Morelos and other states were putting the country's fuel supply at risk.
The protests began New Year's Day when a sharp increase in gas prices — as much as 20 percent in some areas — kicked in. The increases are the result of economic reforms implemented three years ago to wean the country off petroleum subsidies and implement more market-oriented practices. Mexican officials have expressed regret that these reforms went into effect as world oil prices have been increasing.
“I understand the anger and irritation felt by the general public,” President Enrique Peña Nieto said Wednesday during an address to the public, but he also defended his deregulation program. “If this decision had not been taken, the effects and consequences would have been far more painful.”
The Mexican government has come under sharp criticism for the price hikes. On Thursday, Catholic Church officials here asked the government to reconsider the increases, given how they have hurt the poor. “We call on the authorities, especially the executive and legislative powers, to look from below and not only from above,” said a spokesman for the Conference of Mexican Bishops. “It's not correct to impose laws without taking into account reality, to feel how people live, above all the most helpless.”
“This gasolinazo (‘gasoline disaster’) reflects the outrage of the middle class,” said Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “These are themes that directly affect people's pocketbooks.”
At a Pemex gas station that had closed Tuesday but reopened Wednesday near Nicolas Romero, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City, a manager said that the franchises were privately owned, so protesters weren't hurting the government as they may have hoped.
“You affect the owners and employers, but you don't affect the government,” said Hector Tapia, standing near the gas pumps. He conceded that the price hike was stiff: “We're a petroleum country. We shouldn't have such high prices.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.