Attacks on Mexican gas pipeline hamper work of factories and businesses

Honda, Hershey, and other multinational companies temporarily shut down their factories in western Mexico on Wednesday because of attacked key natural gas pipeline.

The small, left-wing guerrilla group that claimed responsibility for the explosions issued a statement late Tuesday vowing to continue the attacks, while the Mexican government scrambled to increase security at "strategic installations" across Mexico.

Security analysts and energy experts, however, downplayed the attacks, noting they were relatively small in nature and mostly symbolic, having little effect on the economy.

Officials from Mexico's state-owned oil and gas monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said an explosion Tuesday and two more last week affected different sections of the same pipeline extending from central Mexico City to Guadalajara, the industry-rich capital of the western state of Jalisco. The company sent 150 workers to repair the line.

At least a dozen companies including Honda Motor Co., Kellogg Co., The Hershey Co., Nissan Motor Co., and Grupo Modelo SA, Mexico's largest beer maker, were forced to suspend or scale back operations because of the lack of natural gas, the daily newspaper Excelsior reported. They said they faced millions of dollars in losses.

Vitro SAB, a Mexican company that makes glass containers, said the shutdown of two plants would cost it about US$800,000 (580,000 EUR) a day. Vitro said in a statement that it was increasing production at other plants in Mexico to minimize effects on customers.

Total business losses were being estimated at more than 70 million pesos (US$6.4 million; 4.65 million EUR) a day, Excelsior reported, citing unidentified sources. The association representing Mexican industry told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it was still looking into the extent of the attacks' financial impact.

Pemex said the gas would probably not be restored until Friday at the earliest, but was working to provide alternative means of delivery.

The explosions forced the evacuation of some communities but caused no injuries, Pemex said.

The group that claimed responsibility for the pipeline attacks is the "military zone command of the People's Revolutionary Army," or EPR, a tiny rebel group that staged several armed attacks on government and police installations in southern Mexico in the 1990s, but was later weakened by internal divisions.

The EPR said its members had planted explosives on the pipeline. Mexican security officials on Tuesday confirmed that the pipeline had been attacked, but did not identify suspects or say whether explosives were involved.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, the EPR said it was waging a "prolonged people's war" against "the anti-people government."

It was impossible to independently verify the statement, which was posted on a Web site that serves as a clearinghouse for bulletins from Latin American armed groups.

The group said it would continue its attacks until the government released Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Raymundo Rivera Bravo, and others it described as political prisoners in the southern state of Oaxaca. Leftist groups took over Oaxaca's capital for five months last year before police took it back and arrested dozens.

But the federal Attorney General's office said Wednesday that neither Reyes nor Rivera had been detained by federal authorities, and that there was no evidence they were in state custody.

The left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party issued a statement Wednesday casting doubt on the EPR's involvement. The party said it "wasn't ruling out" the government's own involvement, either to generate support for allowing private investment in Pemex, to use as an excuse to crack down on leftist groups or "to distract people from the grave problems that afflict the country."

Presdient Felipe Calderon's office did not comment immediately.

Pamela K. Starr, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington, called the attacks "mostly symbolic, limited by the small size and logistical capacity of the group."

George Baker, a Houston-based energy analyst who follows Pemex closely, said the attacks represent only minor headaches for the monopoly because they were limited to a pipeline that can be fixed relatively easily. The sabotage of refineries or privately owned international pipelines would have been much more serious, he said.

"As long as we're talking about just some pipelines in the desert someplace, we don't have to worry about it too much," Baker said.