Stolen Cars Stream South of Border

Houston – Former Houston Oilers football player Alonzo Highsmith has wondered for years what happened to his fully-loaded Ford F-250 diesel truck after it was stolen from a Houston restaurant parking lot.

“Sometimes I look up at the sky and the stars and wonder where that truck is,” said Highsmith, who financed the $30,000 truck just weeks before its 1995 theft.

Almost a decade later, the truck was located in Guatemala by Houston police, who found more than 3,200 stolen vehicles–most from Texas, California and Florida–by tracing vehicle identification numbers through a Guatemalan database.

“I was hoping that it would be found, but as the weeks and months went by I thought, ‘Well, that is the end of this truck.’ I was like a grieving parent,” said Highsmith, now a scout for the Green Bay Packers. He learned of his truck’s whereabouts from The Associated Press. Guatemalan authorities are now trying to recover it by locating the person who registered it there.

Through database work, Houston police want to stem the flow of an estimated 200,000 vehicles that vanish south of the border each year. The comparison of databases has proved useful because thieves don’t always change vehicle identification numbers, said Houston Police Sgt. T.J. Salazar, who has been Houston’s primary contact with Guatemalan authorities.

Many in Mexico

“The NAFTA freeway makes it so easy and inexpensive for them to just steal the car and drive it down from Houston to Guatemala,” said Lt. Victor Rodriguez of Houston’s auto theft division. “They can do it for $100 in gas, and there are very few checks.”

It is suspected that many of the vehicles end up in Mexico. Others make it farther south.

In 1997, Guatemalan authorities asked the U.S. Embassy for help. There was an interest in getting “something done, because there were so many vehicles down there that were stolen from the U.S,” Salazar said.

A year later, Salazar answered the call, and his relationships with Guatemalan officials gained him access to the country’s registration database. Salazar’s now just an international phone call away for Guatemalan authorities to find out if a car was stolen, a process that used to take up to a month.

“The Houston police have been outstanding in their efforts to get these cars back when they have been stolen,” said Richard Bloom, spokesman for Park Ridge, N.J.-based Hertz Corp., which had a number of its stolen vehicles located in Guatemala.

Salazar said local police typically shy away from addressing international auto theft, leaving it to federal authorities. Houston police, later joined by the local FBI office, decided the problem was too big to ignore.

“We have our neighbors to the south and they’re not going anywhere,” Salazar said. “Our vehicles are down there. We lost them, so we need to facilitate and assist in any way possible to identify those vehicles.”

Getting access to Guatemala’s database took time, communication and lots of tedious work, Salazar said. It could be even more challenging in countries where paper files and typewriters are still used, he said.

Thousands of stolen U.S. vehicles will probably remain undetected until databases in other countries are made available.

“No country really checks its registrations against another country’s stolen vehicles,” said Rodriguez, who estimates vehicle theft generates $8 billion a year. He’s in Washington, D.C., for a year working with the FBI, where he hopes to promote and expand his department’s efforts to other countries.

Salazar’s success piqued Honduran and Costa Rican officials’ interest. Both countries have asked Houston police for help combating their auto theft problems.

Central American countries and Mexico “are beginning to see the totality of the problem,” said Ralph Lumpkin, border operations director of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. He said each year an increased number of stolen cars are taken across U.S. borders and once across the border often used for illegal activities.

“They see the theft problem as being an economic drain on them as well,” Lumpkin said.

Insurance companies such as Cleveland-based Progressive have joined the effort, donating everything from computers to the stolen vehicles themselves to Guatemalan police.

Stephen Braunholz, a Progressive investigator, said Houston police have helped his company locate 17 stolen vehicles in Guatemala worth about $188,000. The company estimates it could have $1.3 million worth of vehicles in the country.

“Each of these vehicles is in the hands of a suspect or a criminal,” Braunholz said. “We don’t want to leave it there.”

Getting vehicles back is a difficult task, requiring time, money and assorted international hurdles.

For example, a Toyota Camry recovered from the Dominican Republic within 45 days of being stolen has taken more than a year and a half to get on a cargo ship, Braunholz said.

“It typifies the issue,” he said. “We have probably lost $10,000 to $15,000 in value just for it having sit over there for a year and a half. When it comes back here, we probably won’t get but half price.”

Harris County, the nation’s third largest, leads Texas in the number of stolen vehicles each year, according to the Texas Auto Theft Prevention Authority. Harris, along with Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis counties combined made up 72% of the 90,610 vehicles stolen in Texas in 2002, the most recent figures available.

Comparing other country’s records to those maintained in the United States is no easy task because there is not a centralized national depository for stolen vehicle information, Salazar said.

“I have to push a button here 50 times to get a registration, and sometimes a particular state might be down,” he said.

And things are further complicated in countries, such as Mexico, who like the U.S. maintain databases in each state–making comparison an increased diplomatic and logistical challenge, Salazar said.

The Border Auto Theft Information Center (BATIC), an arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has been working since 1994 to help with the international information exchange, concentrating on Mexico’s 31 states.

Mexican police can call a toll-free number set up by BATIC to find out whether a U.S. vehicle is stolen, but the two countries don’t share databases.

“We’re not even scratching the surface on stolen vehicles,” Salazar said. “Guatemala is the size of Tennessee, so it is not a very large country.

“If we can get the countries together, we can really do a better job of recovering and identifying the international theft rings–and that really is the long-range goal.”