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MEXICO CITY – Protests and looting fueled by anger over gasoline price hikes in Mexico have led to four deaths, the ransacking of at least 300 stores and the arrests of more than 700 people, officials said.
The country's business chambers said the combination of highway, port and terminal blockades and looting this week forced many stores and businesses to close and threatened supplies of basic goods and fuel. The scenes of mass lootings came as parents faced the last shopping day to get presents for their children before the Jan. 6 Epiphany or Three Kings Day holiday.
Two people were found dead amid looting in the port city of Veracruz but an official with the state prosecutor said late Thursday that the killers had not yet been identified. The official was not authorized to talk to the press and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Earlier, officials said a bystander was run over and killed by a driver fleeing police also in Veracruz, and a police officer was killed trying to stop robberies at a gas station in Mexico City.
Mexicans were enraged by the 20 percent fuel price hike announced over the weekend as part of a government deregulation of the energy sector.
While acknowledging the anger, President Enrique Pena Nieto said Thursday he would forge ahead anyway with the deregulated price scheme, which would do away with fuel subsidies and allow gasoline prices to be determined by prevailing international prices.
"I know that allowing gasoline to rise to its international price is a difficult change, but as president, my job is to precisely make difficult decisions now, in order to avoid worse consequences in the future," Pena Nieto said in a televised address. "Keeping gas prices artificially low would mean taking money away from the poorest Mexicans, and giving it to those who have the most."
Pena Nieto said the other big challenge for Mexico in 2017 was to "build a positive relationship with the new U.S. administration," something he said would be done with Mexico's "unbreakable dignity."
While looting calmed somewhat Thursday, protesters blocked highways at about two dozen places. For much of the week, protesters have blockaded gas stations and some people have broken into stores to carry off merchandise.
Police in Mexico's capital said they had arrested 76 people for looting about 29 stores.
Veracruz Gov. Miguel Angel Yunes Linares ventured out Thursday and tried to persuade a crowd not to attack a grocery store that had already been looted a day earlier. He offered the crowd coupons for 500 pesos ($23.25). Yunes later said that wasn't an incentive to stop looting, but rather offered as assistance to help single mothers buy holiday gifts.
In Mexico State, which borders Mexico City, 529 people had been detained as suspected looters. Four state police officers were fired and detained after they were caught on video taking some looted items and putting them in their patrol vehicles. The state government said the looting had quieted down Thursday. But video of the Wednesday disturbances showed riot-like scenes of people streaming out of stores carrying flat-screen TVs and other items.
Officials claimed many of the lootings incidents were promoted through social media.
With blockades affecting everything from gas distribution terminals, seaports and highways to shopping centers and gas stations, the Communications and Transport Department announced it would cancel permits for any truckers who block roads.
Truck and taxi drivers have been among the most affected by the fuel price increases, which took effect as the government ends regulated prices for gasoline and diesel, which it says represented subsidies that unduly benefited wealthier Mexicans.
The change boosted the average price for a liter of premium gasoline to 17.79 pesos (about 90 cents). That makes 4 liters, or about a gallon, equal to nearly as much as Mexico's just raised minimum wage for a day's work — 80 pesos (about $4).
The National Association of Self-Service and Department Stores of Mexico has said in a statement that more than 79 stores had been looted and 170 were closed or blockaded in central Mexico, including the capital.
In the city of Veracruz, 50 establishments including convenience stores, supermarkets and big-box outlets suffered looting, according to a preliminary count by the local chamber of commerce.