Pee-Mex | Mexico | Living in Mexico


We feel oppressed by the handful of oil companies in the U. S. who, we strongly suspect, engage in price-fixing. As Californians subjected to the highest gasoline costs in the country, we think that we (a blue state) are being singled out under an administration originating in Texas (a red state).

Now, as foreign residents of Mexico, we realize we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Pemex (pronounced "peh-mex") is the government-owned petroleum monopoly. We gringos disparagingly call it "Pee-Mex." Everybody buys their gas from Pee-Mex. You can't buy it anywhere else. Pee-Mex has no competitors.

The good news (presumably) is that the monopoly's revenues accrue to the benefit of the Mexican people, rather than a bunch of shareholders. This amount is not inconsiderable, given that petroleum is Mexico's largest source of income (followed by tourism and remittances).

One wonders, however—just what percentage of those revenues actually reach the people? (Hint: It's almost certainly not 100.)

The bad news is that some functionary in a Mexico City high-rise decides where to locate gas stations in, say, Chiapas (mostly where there's no actual traffic), how much to charge for gasoline (too much) and what the restroom cleaning policy is (pigsty). One would also expect that this functionary would set standards for the conduct of gas station attendants, and enforce them.


Buying gas in Mexico requires the skills of a champion Texas Hold-em player. Like in Oregon, you're not allowed to pump your own gas. No. Instead, the highly-trained, scrupulously honest employees of Pee-Mex must perform the demanding and dangerous task of pumping it. Providing all kinds of opportunities for hanky-panky.

For example, you buy $300 pesos worth of gas. You hand the guy a $500 peso note. More frequently than you would expect, he hands you a single $100 peso note in change. The wise customer immediately counts his change, notes the discrepancy and asks the attendant for the other $100 pesos, which he hands you with a sheepish grin.

"Oh gee. Silly me. I miscounted your change. Here you go. All's well that ends well. No hard feelings, huh?"

One defense, if you don't want to repeatedly demand the correct change, is to ask for an amount of gas for which you have exact change. You order $300 pesos' worth, holding three $100 peso notes in your hand.

This usually works, but the good ones have a countermove ready. He pumps $280 pesos worth and tells you the tank's full. Or the pump's broken. Or they ran out of gas. Whatever. It's amazing how unreliable Pemex stations are.

Now, it's customary to tip the attendant, especially if he washes your windshield. He gets just a few pesos. $20 pesos is too much.

You give him your $300 pesos. The attendant gives you a $20 peso bill in change. You're expected to tip him or else you are a cheap gringo bastard exploiting a poor Mexican. He's already turning away. You need to do something right now! But what?

You hand him back the $20 peso bill and say, "Keep the change." You feel like a jerk. You find yourself wondering, "What the hell just happened?"

The wise customer always has a $5 peso coin in his hand.

One of the most frequent scams is the balky pump. Here's how it works. The previous customer buys $127 pesos worth of gas. You pull up. The guy puts the nozzle in your car's filler pipe. You foolishly neglect to look at the pump to see that the meter reads $127 pesos. You might as well have a sign on your back that says, "I'm easy. Here's my wallet. Just go ahead and take what you think is right."

A few minutes later, the attendant asks for your attention. "Señor. We have a problem. The pesky pump shut off prematurely. To start it again, I must reset it. Here. I will write down $127 pesos on this notepad I happen to be carrying. Then I will reset the pump and complete your order, at which time I will add the $127 pesos to the total then registering on the pump. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience. But you know how it is. Pemex won't send a technico to fix the pump. What can one do?"

After filling your tank, he adds $127 pesos to the total on the meter, which, feeling really stupid, you pay. Then he tries to shortchange you. 'Cause you were so easy about the pump thing.

Of course, the wise customer always checks to see that the pump has been zeroed.

The relatively honest attendants in San Miguel de Allende will point this out to you in case you forget. "Mire. Ceros," they will say.

But in thoroughly corrupt cities like, say, Saltillo, you have to be on your toes. Once I pulled into a gas station there. Immediately three guys surrounded the car. One asked me what Rose's name was. Being an old Mexico hand, I was not taken in. "Rosita" I said over my shoulder as I walked over to check the pump.

Fresh from dodging that distraction, I approached the attendant who said something incomprehensible in rapid Spanish and pointed behind me. I turned and saw a rack of gasoline additives. I turned back to tell him I didn't want any. Meanwhile, one of his confederates edged in front of me to wash the side windows, cutting off my view of the pump. Then the guy looking at Rose asked, "Does she bite?" I told him, "No." I eyed him suspiciously as he reached his hand into the car to scratch her ears. Just in case he might try to hurt her. I mean, I was on total alert. No way was I gonna let anything go wrong. I didn't just fall off the potato truck, you know.

At that point, the attendant gestured apologetically toward the pump. Oh darn. It had already pumped $127 pesos' worth of gas and then, wouldn't you know it, it shut down.

Got me! The whole charade was brilliantly orchestrated. They'd obviously practiced this scam until it was seamless. I almost had to admire them.

Oh, I could have raised a stink. I could have threatened to call the police. But of course, it's well known that the police in Saltillo are more corrupt even than pump attendants. I'd probably wind up having to bribe them not to take me to jail for attempting to defraud a gas station.

So I paid the a**hole and got out of there, mindful that ten minutes in a cesspool like Saltillo is too long. The $127 pesos I wrote off to tuition in the school of living in Mexico.

The lesson? Don't ever let a Pee-Mex employee put a hose in your tank until you see "0000.00"