Americas & Beyond
|Cartels Targeting Pickups|
Jason Buch - San Antonio Express-News
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December 13, 2010
The Ford F-Series is the most popular truck in South Texas, and its Super Duty models happen to be the pickup favored by drug traffickers across the Rio Grande.
Laredo police broke up two auto theft rings this year targeting F-250s and F-350s for delivery to criminal organizations in Mexico. One of the rings stole vehicles from as far north as San Antonio.
Texas law enforcement officials first noticed in the 1980s that vehicles stolen in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas were ending up in the hands of Mexican drug trafficking organizations, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, but the practice has increased in the past three years.
Sgt. Eddie Garcia of the Laredo Police Department's auto theft division said pickups are a favorite of drug cartels for obvious reasons: The vehicles are big, can stow plenty of contraband and can handle going off-road in the South Texas and northern Mexico back country.
The type of truck that's in demand depends on the organization or even the criminal who's ordering it, Garcia said. The cartels will also switch up the vehicles they're requesting once law enforcement realizes what type of truck they've been targeting. Earlier this year, Garcia said, the cartels were targeting Ram pickups.
“I would say the past four or five months, F-250s and F-350s have been what's in demand there in Mexico,” he said.
A Laredo police detective who was on an outbound inspection detail, working on one of the international bridges looking for stolen vehicles headed to Mexico, caught a lucky break on the night of Aug. 14, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. The detective noticed that the door and ignition switch on an F-250 headed to Mexico had been tampered with — in some cases, thieves used pliers to force the ignition, according to the affidavit. When he ran the truck's plates, the detective learned that it had been stolen in San Antonio.
Well-organized theft rings are hard to catch at the bridges, Garcia said. More than 10,000 noncommercial vehicles cross into Mexico on Laredo's international bridges every day, and the criminal organizations usually have halcones, or lookouts, to notify them when police are conducting outbound inspections. Even when customs officers or police do notice signs that a vehicle has been stolen, such as an ignition that's been tampered with, the driver usually just hits the gas pedal and runs by the port, Garcia said.
This time the driver didn't run. That stop led to Laredo police arresting eight people, whom they accused of stealing 10 trucks in Laredo and five from San Antonio.
The investigation uncovered a theft ring stealing trucks across South Texas and delivering them to the Zetas drug cartel in Nuevo Laredo. The thieves, one of whom belongs to a San Antonio street gang, would drop off the stolen vehicles in downtown Laredo, according an arrest warrant affidavit for one of the accused members of the ring. From there, another member of the ring would take it into Nuevo Laredo. The Zetas paid between $1,200 and $1,600 for each vehicle, to be divided among those involved in the theft, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.
“It's been confirmed in the past that they give these mules ... quotas, ‘I need 10 trucks by the end of the week,'” Garcia said. “Supposedly, they told us, they have to meet the demand, otherwise something will happen to them or their families.”
A popular ride
Ford pickups are the most stolen trucks in Texas, followed by Chevrolet pickups and Dodge pickups, according to the Texas Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority. The five- to 10-year-old Ford trucks the Laredo ring was stealing are popular vehicles not just because they're favored for use in gateway crimes like smuggling, said Julia Bardnell, a spokeswoman for the authority.
Popular vehicles are of course popular with thieves, Bardnell said. Older models tend to be popular for two reasons, she said: Newer trucks have more advanced anti-theft systems, and older vehicles are in demand for parts, Bardnell said.
Mexico has long been a destination for vehicles stolen near the border, but it's hard to know if they ended up in cartel hands, she said.
“We know the cars are stolen, we just don't know what they're used for when they're recovered,” Bardnell said.
In response to thefts along the border, the state in 1994 created the Border Auto Theft Information Center, which provides a telephone number that law enforcement agencies in Mexico, Canada and Central America can call to check the status of U.S. vehicles they come across. Of the 76,617 vehicles stolen in Texas last year, 50,567 were recovered, and 1,845 of those were repatriated from Mexico. While the DPS said thefts connected to cartels have increased in recent years, a spokesman said the agency is still trying to figure out why they've increased.
In Laredo, one of the top cities in the country for auto theft, the numbers are down, Garcia said. In 2009, through the end of September, the city had recorded 1,122 auto thefts. This year, at the end of September, only 747 had been reported, he said.
And while he attributed vigilance at border crossings to catching some thieves, Garcia said the best way for Texans to protect their vehicles is to make them difficult to steal.
“You'd be surprised how many people leave their engine running when they're inside shopping at the convenience store and when they come out the car isn't there,” he said.