A trafficker's vehicle of choice
- From: jose <josefsoplar@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 19 Jan 2008 09:59:39 -0800 (PST)
A trafficker's vehicle of choice
Cartels swipe rugged Ford F-250s, F-350s in state for smuggling drugs
Houston entrepreneur Bill Christmann was shocked when thieves stole
his souped-up black Ford F-250 pickup from his west Houston driveway
one night last July.
But shock turned to concern the next day after Christmann learned
thieves had driven the 2001, heavy-duty, four-wheel drive truck to
Laredo, loaded it with illegal immigrants and drove it back from the
border, roaring off-road through fenced ranch pastures.
Police chased the truck south of San Antonio before the smugglers
crashed the vehicle into a tree. The smugglers escaped, and the
''That is a little scary, being that close to home," said Christmann,
referring to criminals linked to smuggling rings showing up in his
Christmann is among hundreds of Houstonians who purchased one of
Ford's two popular and expensive pickup models -- the Super Duty F-250
and Super Duty F-350 -- and have since learned that their rugged trucks
are increasingly favored by gangs of auto thieves.
Many of the trucks, police officials in Houston and border towns say,
are being stolen for Mexican criminal cartels who use them as vehicles
for narcotics and human trafficking.
In 2006, thieves made off with 888 of the F-250s and F-350s from
locations in Houston, according to Lt. Scott Dombrowski, of the
Houston Police Department's auto theft division.
In 2007, he said, thefts of the same models increased 40 percent, to
During the same two-year period, police say, the overall number of
vehicle thefts in the city fell slightly.
Cartels are stealing the Ford trucks, in part, to evade increasing law
enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities say.
The trucks, many equipped with double cabs and four-wheel drive, hold
a lot of cargo and can easily cross remote areas.
Experts say the big Fords have also been easier to steal than other
"You can steal these trucks with a screwdriver," Dombrowski said.
Wes Sherwood, manager for Ford truck communications at company
headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., said steps have been taken to change
Until the 2008 model year, computer chips were not embedded in keys
for F-250s and F-350s, he said. Without the "secure lock" key, which
has been standard in recent years on other Ford trucks and SUVs, the
electronic ignition cannot be activated.
Easily evade police
Sherwood said earlier Super Duty models had an anti-theft device that
included a car alarm.
Dombrowski said many groups are stealing the trucks in Houston, then
driving them south.
"They are not running them just to Brownsville and McAllen," he said,
"but running them to Del Rio and other border crossings."
The big trucks continue to be stolen at a time when Houston has seen a
slight decline in auto thefts, Dombrowski said.
During the first 11 months of 2007, 18,016 vehicles were reported
stolen in Houston, compared with 19,305 during the same period in
The trucks are being increasingly used to transport illegal
immigrants, Dombrowski said, because profits are high and criminal
penalties for human trafficking are less than for narcotics
The trucks can easily evade police.
''It's big business," Dombrowski said. ''If you have human cargo, and
they bail out, they don't get caught. And law enforcement has nothing,
no evidence. They get away with it, and they're charging up to $5,000
Police in El Paso say Mexican cartels are stealing the Ford trucks
because they can cross the border in the rough terrain of West Texas
as well as the harsh deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.
''They use them to make entry in the outlying areas where there are no
ports of entry," said Stephen Plummer, crime prevention officer for El
Paso's auto theft task force. ''They're avoiding the ports of entry by
using these offroad-type vehicles."
Plummer said in the past two years there have been 362 Ford F-250s and
F-350s stolen in his border city, where full-size trucks and large
SUVs make up the majority of the vehicles stolen.
''That's been a regional problem for Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and
California," he said, referring to the Ford trucks, which can cost in
excess of $50,000. ''It's all going to relate back to narcotics and
human trafficking, and the terrain of the Southwest."
Police in the border town of Brownsville say they reduced automobile
theft in that city by 12 percent last year compared with 2006.
But during the same period, thefts of Ford F-250s and F-350s increased
dramatically, from 16 in 2006 to 41 last year, said Lt. James Pascall,
who heads the auto theft detail.
John Mitchell, a special agent with the National Insurance Crime
Bureau assigned to South Texas, said auto thieves connected to the
smuggling organizations have focused on the big Ford trucks.
"I haven't heard of any instances where Chevys and Dodges have been
used to smuggle illegal aliens or narcotics," said Mitchell, an
investigator with the industry nonprofit group.
Using 'bait cars'
Susan Sampson, director of the state's Automobile Burglary and Theft
Prevention Authority, said police officers are using grants from the
agency to employ ''bait cars" equipped with hidden cameras and
satellite locators to catch thieves.
So far, the agency has purchased 10 automated license plate readers
that can alert patrol officers if a passing vehicle has been reported
Dombrowski, who heads the Houston police auto theft detail, said
officers have followed bait cars all the way to the border to crack
the rings stealing Ford pickups.
''We've done a lot of things, but there's a lot more thieves than
there are police to track them down," he said.
Switch to Chevy
Christmann, who owns a construction firm, has replaced his stolen Ford
F-250 with a big new Chevrolet pickup. He bought it for the Chevy
diesel motor and, he said, because ''it does have a lot better
security on it."
Two of Christmann's friends who work for another Houston construction
company had their F-250s stolen on the same day last summer.
The trucks were next to each other in the company lot and were found
10 days later at a Houston apartment complex a mile away. They were
returned to their owners.
One of the men, Chris Parrack, has installed a concealed kill switch
on his 2007 model F-250, and hopes for the best.
''Every time I walk out into the parking lot, I grin and wonder if my
truck is going to be there," Parrack said.
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