MEXICO CITY — If you think paying $3.50 for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. is a hardship, consider Mexico, where motorists are really getting stiffed.
Nine in 10 gasoline stations in Mexico have rigged their pumps to dispense less than what their meters promise, according to federal authorities, who calculated that purloined petrol cost consumers at least $1 billion last year.
Random checks have revealed that the average retailer, known here as a gasolinero, skims a little more than a liter of gasoline for every 20 sold.
But the most audacious stations would make Al Capone blush. One in the tourist haven of Acapulco was recently caught shorting its customers by nearly half the volume displayed on the pump.
The station was busted by Profeco, the nation's chief consumer watchdog, which has launched a nationwide crackdown on dishonest owners. The agency has mounted surprise inspections, gathering evidence with the help of undercover agents armed with video cameras and vehicles outfitted with special gas tanks that can be removed for lab analysis.
About 1,100 stations, nearly 15% of the country's total, have been caught in the dragnet this year.
Profeco, or the Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor, is closing stations and fining owners to force them to clean up their acts. It plans to post inspection results on the Internet to expose swindlers. And it has launched a public relations campaign to urge motorists to report gasoline cheats.
It's no easy task in Mexico, which is dominated by powerful business interests and which has never been friendly to consumers. Decades of corruption at the government petroleum monopoly have conditioned Mexicans to expect a soaking at the pumps.
"To be a gasolinero is synonymous with being corrupt," said Roberto Karam Ahuad, head of fuel verification for Profeco. "It's like Chicago in the 1930s."
The big difference is that even Windy City mobsters had competition. Mexico's 7,400 retail stations are all franchises of state-owned company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, which has a lock on production and sales.
Because the Mexican government sets the price of gasoline -- currently the equivalent of $2.18 a gallon for regular unleaded in most of Mexico -- consumers can't shop for the best deal. Most station owners don't even bother posting prices. They just switch on the pumps and wait for customers to arrive, a process that critics liken to inviting sheep to the shearing.
Many of the attendants bustling around the pumps in jumpsuits emblazoned with the official Pemex logo are actually unpaid freelancers angling for tips -- and a chance to shortchange distracted customers.
Cab driver Guillermo Tinoco had his game face on as he pulled his green-and-white Volkswagen Beetle into a gas station here recently. He handed a 100-peso note to the attendant and trained an eye on the spinning fuel meter to make sure there was no funny business.
"I don't know this place, so I'm only buying a little out of necessity," he said of his $8.82 purchase. "I try to go where they rob me the least."
Station owners have been known to dilute their fuel with additives to stretch their profits, causing engine damage to clients down the road.
"It's hard to know" what you're getting, said Carlos Ivan, 20, a student and part-time taxi driver who said he dreaded his twice-weekly trips to the filling station.
Mexico's tax collectors aren't too happy either. Gasoline is a popular deduction for taxpayers here. Slip some Pemex pump jockeys a few pesos and they will whip up an official sales receipt for any amount you like. It's a practice that officials say is costing the nation millions in lost tax revenue.
Authorities tried last year to close that loophole with legislation requiring taxpayers who want to claim a fuel deduction to pay for their gasoline with a credit card or check, because those sales are harder to falsify than cash purchases. The measure was defeated after stiff lobbying from the nation's gasolineros.
"Many of these cash transactions are susceptible to fraud," Jose Maria Zubiria, head of Mexico's version of the Internal Revenue Service, said in a statement. "The documentation ... is very weak."
Jose Angel Garcia Hernandez, president of a trade group that represents 80% of the Mexico's service stations, said he supported a crackdown on scofflaws. But he denied Profeco's assertions that cheating was rampant or that his members were getting rich on ill-gotten gains.
"[Our] station owners give consumers what they pay for," he said.
One thing franchisees and consumer advocates agree on is that things are a lot better than they used to be.
Mexican officials for decades handed out Pemex concessions to cronies who ran them like personal fiefdoms. Stations were renowned for their poor service, crumbling facilities and restrooms so foul that many travelers preferred the roadside.