People who are illegally occupying toll plazas in Nayarit are set to come face to face with members of the National Guard (GN) this week.
However, it appears unlikely that they will be forcibly removed. President López Obrador on Monday ordered the GN to remove people who are illegally collecting tolls from motorists but the security force said that it would seek to persuade them to withdraw through dialogue.
Protesters and alleged criminals have occupied toll plazas in Nayarit for months, charging motorists between 50 and 80 pesos to pass.
Until February, those collecting the tolls claimed to be farmers who said they weren’t adequately compensated for ceding their land for the construction of highways.
But according to the newspaper El Heraldo de México, members of criminal groups subsequently took control of the toll plazas and started collecting tolls for their own personal gain.
Among the occupied toll plazas are those on the highway between Tepic, Nayarit, and Mazatlán, Sinaloa.
“Action will be taken at all the occupied toll booths on the highway from Tepic to Mazatlán,” López Obrador told reporters at his regular news conference.
“I take this opportunity to tell these people that this illegal business is finished,” he said, adding that companies that built the toll roads have filed a complaint because they can’t recoup the money they invested.
The president said that the GN will ensure that the toll booths on the Tepic-Mazatlán highway will be cleared this week.
The newspaper El Economista sought comment from the GN about when and how it will carry out the operation to remove the illegal toll collectors.
A spokesperson for the security force responded that no specific operation had been planned but indicated that it would act in accordance with the directions of authorities. However, the spokesperson stressed that the GN will always favor dialogue over force.
For his part, the head of the Association of Road Infrastructure Concessionaires said he was confident that López Obrador’s commitment would be fulfilled and that those occupying toll plazas in Nayarit and elsewhere will be removed.
“What the president pointed out [about lost revenue at toll booths] is very important. It’s not the first time he’s referred to the issue; in Nayarit a few weeks ago he compared [the illegal collection of tolls] to fuel theft, which is a very pertinent statement because it represents a very significant loss for the treasury beyond” what the road operators lose, Marco Antonio Frías Galván said.
He said 11 different toll plazas are currently occupied in Nayarit and that 25 others have been taken over in Sonora, Jalisco, Michoacán, México state, Morelos, Guerrero and Mexico City. The concessionaires association has filed more than 1,500 criminal complaints against toll plaza occupiers since 2018, he said.
Frías said that economic losses at toll plazas in 2020 already exceed the 3 billion pesos (US $139.1 million) that was lost last year.
He said the association he leads is working with the federal Security Ministry to develop a plan to prevent the takeover of plazas.
Although López Obrador claimed that his government is putting an end to the practice and that it has avoided losses of up to 7 billion pesos, Frías said that impunity remains a significant incentive for would-be occupiers.
“While there’s no punishment for those who take over toll booths, … the incentive will remain. It’s also clear that this very impunity has led to the creation of groups that exclusively dedicate themselves to blocking [toll plazas]. They’ve found a significant source of illegal revenue,” he said.
According to El Heraldo de México, a group of people occupying a toll plaza can collect more than 1 million pesos (US $46,300) per day.