Stopping US cars from being stolen and taken to Mexico

Auto Thefts Plague Border Region
by Cam Simpson
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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Mexican Drug Cartels Drive Much of Illicit Vehicle Trade; Laredo, Texas, Is Hit Hard

This city along the Rio Grande is on the verge of becoming the stolen-car capital of the U.S., according to data set for release Monday that underscore how drug cartels are helping make the U.S.-Mexico border region a hot spot for vehicle thieves.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit body that collects law-enforcement reports, said 1,960 vehicles were reported stolen in the Laredo metropolitan area last year, an increase of more than 47% since 2005, when Laredo ranked 32nd nationally. That comes to 827 thefts per 100,000 people, putting Laredo just behind No. 1 Modesto, Calif.

Of the 20 U.S. metropolitan regions with the highest theft rates, according to the crime bureau, seven are near the Mexico border: Laredo; San Diego; Albuquerque, N.M.; Tucson, Ariz.; El Centro, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; and Phoenix. El Paso in particular has jumped up the charts; it ranked 17th in 2008, compared with No. 81 in 2005.

While Mexican drug cartels aren't behind every stolen car along the border, police say their money drives the professional side of the trade.

President Barack Obama will visit Mexico this week to show support for President Felipe Calderón, who is using Mexico's military to crack down on the drug cartels behind an epidemic of violence in northern Mexico. The White House says boosting federal law-enforcement efforts on the U.S. side is a priority.

Although drug violence in Laredo is down from the historic highs of a few years ago, people from all walks of life -- including police officers -- are falling prey to roving bands of car thieves.

One Laredo detective's Dodge Durango disappeared from outside his house, with his bulletproof vest and a semiautomatic handgun inside, police say. The local U.S. border-patrol chief recently had his pickup truck stolen, too.

Mindy Casso, a news anchor at the Laredo NBC affiliate, stepped outside one morning to load her two kids into her Ford Ranger, only to find it was gone -- even though a private security car was patrolling her upscale neighborhood.

"It's overwhelming," said Carlos Maldonado, who was named Laredo's police chief last May. "I don't have an officer to put on every car in the city."

Perched on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, the city is the busiest inland port in the U.S., with four bridges to Mexico. On the other side is a key center of the $30 billion-a-year Mexico-U.S. narcotics trade.

Drug cartels have several uses for stolen cars. In some cases, traffickers provide the stolen vehicles to smugglers who move weapons bought in the U.S. across the border, according to a recent internal report by the Department of Homeland Security. It says cars sometimes are "laundered" with different plates.

Using stolen cars makes good business sense for the cartels, which can minimize losses if the vehicles are seized, police say.

Sgt. Eduardo Garcia, 39 years old, has led Laredo's stolen-vehicle task force, with nine men, for about eight years. He says Mexico's traffickers provide wish lists of makes and models to the best thieves -- preferably U.S. citizens who can legally drive an American-plated car into Mexico. Traffickers pay up to about $1,000 apiece for highly valued vehicles, such as new Ford or Dodge pickup trucks.

Usually, police say, thieves work in three- or four-man teams. "Spotters" will find the cars they want, then quickly dispatch a car filled with thieves.

The city of Laredo runs along the Rio Grande, meaning Mexico is just a few minutes away from almost any spot in town. "If it's stolen at 3 [p.m.], for example, it's in Mexico by 3:05," Sgt. Garcia said. The city has tried to use license-plate readers to detect stolen cars, but the vehicles are frequently over the border before their owners even know they have been stolen.

Detectives patrol the thieves' favorite areas, hoping to spot the crooks before they strike. But as the police watch the thieves, the thieves also watch the police. Although the city swaps undercover cars driven by auto-theft detectives every six to eight months, thieves often pinpoint the police cars. After his arrest last week, a ringleader rattled off the models driven by two detectives, Sgt. Garcia said.

Laredo police have few ways to track the traffickers calling the shots, who are largely in Mexico. Because of fears they would be targeted by drug cartels, the city's police officers are barred from crossing into Mexico. And Arturo Galvan, the longest-serving member of the task force, said corruption on the Mexican side has made it impossible even to work by phone. "Who can you trust?" he asked.

One tactic has proven effective: makeshift checkpoints on the city's busiest thoroughfare to Mexico, known as Bridge No. 2.

Manning the checkpoint one evening last week, Sgt. Garcia stood amid two lanes of traffic rolling into Mexico, his eyes darting back and forth for telltale signs: a valued vehicle, such as an expensive pickup truck, with a young male driver and no passengers. Then he looked for other signs, such as damage on a door handle or keyhole.

Many thieves get by when his overburdened team isn't watching. Still, Sgt. Garcia said that the checkpoints are effective. Police have noticed that when the checkpoints are manned, patrol car lights flashing, the number of reported thefts goes down.

"What we can do," Sgt. Garcia said, "is be a deterrent."
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  • manuel salazar 2010/01/14 22:33:19
    manuel salazar
    Join the discussion! Leave a comment.
  • John Cunningham 2009/04/17 17:12:07
    John Cunningham
    It sure makes sense, if you go to the border, you may loose everything including your life. You would think that the most powerful Nation ever, would have a barrier of some sort, that know one, would ever dare cross over it.
  • hillbilly 2009/04/17 16:32:07
    We can expect Clinton to apologize for America's addiction to vehicles. We must move them away from our border towns and not tempt Mexico's economic powers that be.

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