TEPOTZOTLAN, Mexico — Highway robbers and railway bandits are riding high in Mexico, pulling off brazen daylight heists and inflicting serious damage on the national economy.
"It's getting worse and worse every day," said Luis Alvarez Marcen of the Mexican Insurers Association.
Train robberies occur an average of 4.5 times a day, and parts of Mexico are so rife with truck hijackings that one newspaper labeled them "Bermuda Triangles," referring to the Atlantic Ocean region where ships and planes supposedly have vanished.
Along some major highways, armed gangs take control of one fully loaded 18-wheeler after another. They unhitch the tractor-trailers and hitch them onto their own cabs, hauling the loot away.
"They can do it in less than two minutes," said Gustavo Passa, the regional safety and security manager for Ryder System, a global transportation and logistics company with headquarters in suburban Miami.
A highway cargo trade group in Mexico, known by its Spanish initials as Canacar, reported more than 10,000 highway thefts of cargo last year, a 40 percent spike over the previous year. No figures are available yet for 2010.
Using government data, the Mexican Association of Security and Industrial Satellite Companies estimated that losses from cargo theft last year amounted to about $9 billion, or nearly 1 percent of the country's economic output, said the group's secretary, Adrian Charansonnet.
One audacious technique of highway robbers is to masquerade as police officers, including fake uniforms and patrol cars.
"It's very common to see gunmen . . . dressed up like federal policemen manning very legitimate-looking roadblocks out in the middle of nowhere on one of these federal highways," said Samuel Logan, the manager for Latin America at iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a global intelligence and risk management consultancy.
Cargo thievery is a problem worldwide, but it has a violent edge in Mexico. Some 60 to 65 percent of the thefts are at gunpoint, said Alvarez Marcen of the insurance industry.
Impersonating a police officer and using a firearm in a holdup draws the attention of law enforcement and raises the stakes in countries such as the United States, but not necessarily in Mexico, where conviction rates are low.
Criminal gangs along the highways and rail lines increasingly rob in league with powerful narcotics cartels that are diversifying into other types of crime, experts said.
As the government of President Felipe Calderon has put pressure on the cartels, their gunmen "look for rewarding work with less risk in the form of cargo theft," says the 2010 global threat assessment from FreightWatch International, a logistics security provider based in Austin, Texas.
The drug cartels bring more sophisticated techniques, such as bribing warehouse and customs personnel for information about truck routes and valuable cargo loads, and use their muscle to move the stolen goods to market.
Fencing stolen goods is relatively risk-free in Mexico City, a metropolis of some 25 million people that supports sprawling informal markets in which "hundreds of truckloads of merchandise disappear every day," the FreightWatch report says.
"Just about any cargo is at risk. Electric appliances, food, clothing, shoes, car parts, medicines — whatever the product, there's a bustling underground market ready to receive it," said a report in March from Kroll Associates, a global risk consultancy.
A Kroll senior director in the Mexico City office, Francesco Pipitone, said gang leaders sometimes threatened informal market vendors in order to get rid of merchandise they had on hand, because they were going to be given stolen goods in a few days that they must sell.
In response to the rising thefts, transport companies resort to more sophisticated GPS devices on trucks, move units in convoys and employ escort vehicles.
Robbers are upping their game, too, learning to disable the GPS locators on the tops of cabs or pulling hijacked vehicles under bridges to block the signals, giving themselves more time to offload or re-hitch the trailers, Logan said.
Large multinational companies often have monitoring centers that observe trucks via GPS as they make their routes. Drivers have "panic buttons" in their cabs and security seals on their trailers. Remote security personnel can cut the fuel to the engines if the drivers get out or hijackers seize the rigs.
"In Mexico, we have a much larger security staff than in the States, and a much larger percentage of our shipments are under escort," said Bill Anderson, the director of global security for Ryder.
Smaller companies, fewer of which are insured, are hit hard by theft. Their drivers sometimes make unauthorized stops to buy cigarettes, eat, visit girlfriends or even pick up unauthorized cargo, Charansonnet said, leaving parked trucks vulnerable to assault.
A veteran driver who'd stopped along the road on Mexico City's northern outskirts — "just call me 'Rattlesnake,' " he said of his identity — said that a major factor in cargo theft was collusion between corrupt police and gangs, often occurring near tollbooths or rest areas.
"Along the highway to Puebla," he said, referring to an industrial city near the capital, "right after the Amozoc tollbooth, they'll put a gun to your head."
Criminal gangs deploy more gunmen when they're robbing trains. Pipitone said that commandos of 10 to 15 rifle-toting gunmen weren't uncommon.
Acting to slow the rampant holdups of trains, Mexico's Congress categorized train robbery as a "serious crime" in late April and toughened sentences to 10 to 30 years in prison. Unlike in the past, train-robbing suspects won't be freed on bond before trial.
The president of the Mexico subsidiary of Kansas City Southern, Jose G. Zozaya, said his railway was "not immune to being hit by organized crime."
He said it had employed tactics such as moving trains faster, using "jump teams" of responders when situations developed and fostering good support from state and federal police to minimize robberies of cargoes that include fuel, steel, grains, petrochemicals, auto parts and new automobiles.
"Our competitors have had autos stolen off their platforms multiple times," Zozaya said, noting that Mexico is a major exporter of new cars.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010