With huge queues at fuel stations and panicked customers lining up with jerry cans, Mexico’s new leftwing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has upset the public as he wages the first battle in his war on crime and corruption at the petrol pump. Ballooning theft of fuel from state oil company Pemex, which he said cost it $3bn last year — more than double third quarter net profit— prompted the government to shut some pipelines at the end of December and distribute fuel by truck instead. That has led to acute delays in fuel arriving at petrol stations this week, with queues of motorists as long as 1km waiting to fill up their cars and hundreds of petrol stations across the country closed.

Mr López Obrador has urged the public to be patient and to support his efforts to take on the fuel thieves as he seeks to rush through the creation of a controversial new police force under military control to fight crime. That could be approved by Congress next week.  While he has won plaudits for going all out against fuel theft, dubbed huachicoleo, after the failure of his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto, analysts said his strategy looked improvised and may prove unsustainable.  Similar to his rush to establish the new National Guard police force and to implement pet infrastructure projects including a refinery and a train line in southern Mexico and an alternative to a scrapped Mexico City airport project even before technical studies have been carried out, the tough stance on fuel illustrates the headstrong president’s “I know best” approach to policymaking.

“We’re going to resist all pressures,” the 65-year-old leftist nationalist, who describes himself as “obstinate”, vowed to reporters this week.  “We’ll continue with all efforts necessary . . . not one step backwards,” the president said on Thursday, saying he would step up security along chief pipeline routes. “These corrupt people will not beat us.” A day after asking private owners of tanker trucks to help distribute fuel, Mr López Obrador also called on Mexicans to join some 4,000 troops being mobilised to guard 1,600km of pipelines. But Gonzalo Monroy, an energy consultant, said shutting pipelines was a short-term solution at best.

“The soldiers can’t stay [guarding tankers and installations], it’s very costly to use tankers. We’ll go back to pipelines. And when we do, they’re just going to drill and rob again. It’s a perpetual game of cat and mouse,” he tweeted.