When that white Porsche valued at US $ 70,000 rolled through the streets of Guatemala City, very few knew its dark origins.
How many luxury cars stolen in the United States end up on the streets of Latin America
But a sports car like that does not go unnoticed in one of the poorest capitals of Latin America: a simple check of the authorities located its legitimate owners more than 4,600 km by road from there, in the opulent city of Miami.
It turned out that this colorful car was marked by Interpol. It had been stolen without damaging a cable in January of 2018 and, a month later, it was screaming tires with all the glamor of Central America.
The authorities seized him and took him to an estate. It seemed like a settled case and that his story had ended there ... but it was stolen again by the same band a month later.
As announced by the Public Prosecutor of Guatemala a few weeks ago, the car recovered again and finally delivered it to its owner.
But the event did not end there: the investigations revealed days later that the theft was linked to a complex network of a criminal structure that, with the collaboration of police, was dedicated to stealing cars on an international scale.
US authorities believe that Mexico and many other countries in the Americas are some of the main destinations for stolen cars in the United States, which are then sold or dismantled and their unique pieces are quoted for high prices in local auto shops.
According to the FBI, a total of 773,139 vehicles worth a total of almost US $ 6 billion were stolen in the US. during 2017 (last year for which figures are available), which means an average of one car every two minutes.
"Although given the nature of this crime there are no official figures, much evidence suggests that the theft of vehicles for illegal export, particularly on the border with Mexico, is a substantial problem," explains criminologist Ronald Clarke, a professor at the University Rutger and student of the subject.
The National Bureau of Insurance Crime (NICB), an organization that is responsible for investigating these robberies and other fraud related to motor vehicles, believes that, in large part, the fate of these cars is on the south side of the border.
"Hence, California and the states bordering Mexico are where the cities with the highest incidence of this crime are located, there is no other known reason that can explain this disproportion of robberies in these cities than to export them illegally to Mexico and Central America," explains to BBC Mundo Roger Morris, spokesman of the NICB.
But according to the expert, this is not the only destination.
Many cars stolen in the United States also embark illegally on freighters bound for other South American nations, but also other more distant ports such as Africa, China or Singapore, where they are sold for up to four times their original price.
"These are countries where these models are not commercialized or are very difficult to find, but at the same time, there are people with enough money to pay several times what they originally cost in the United States," he says.
But how can it be explained that these stolen cars can cross over land and sea so easily the rigorously guarded borders of the United States?
According to Clarke, the basis of these thefts is the high demand and the limited availability of these vehicles, generally luxury, in Mexico and Central America.
"The illegal export of stolen cars is based on three conditions: the existence of attractive vehicles in a developed country, the demand for these vehicles in another less developed country and ways to transport them from the origin to the destination," he explains.
Morris, for his part, points out that there are several factors that foster this crime.
"The border with Mexico is the busiest in the world, thousands and thousands of vehicles use these crossings every day, but the border controls in the United States are focused on the arrivals, not on the departures, the cars that leave are not submitted practically to no control, "he says.
In his opinion, the country has other security priorities in which detecting a stolen car does not rank among its emergencies, which are more oriented to avoid "terrorist attacks", the importation of drugs or human trafficking.
Hence, in his opinion, it is "very easy" to leave the United States without having the vehicle - or the person - subject to any inspection.
The United States Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) explains to BBC Mundo that its agents perform "random" physical inspections based on intelligence reports, known criminal activity or to determine if the car is stolen or not.
But according to statistics from the Department of Transportation, more than 67 million vehicles, which carried twice as many passengers, crossed the US-Mexico border. and Mexico in 2018.
This figure represents an average of almost 184,000 vehicles per day, hence detecting stolen cars among this huge amount of traffic is a task similar to the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack.
Something similar happens with seaports.
"On many occasions, the cars are shipped in containers with the collaboration of export companies and it is also practically impossible to verify what is in each of the thousands and thousands of containers that leave the US each day. Safety is prioritized in the merchandise that enters the country, "explains Morris.
CBP maintains, for its part, that it uses "itinerant equipment" routinely at the ports of exit to perform inspections on containers.
"The objectives of these teams are based on risk assessment or randomly check shipping containers and vehicles at container examination sites or cargo lots pending export," he says.
But again, the hundreds of thousands of containers that leave the United States each day make the inspection of ships another task for which CBP cannot cope.
"Really the border control at the exit is not strong enough that we would wish, and this has given way to a kind of mafia in which gangs and other criminal organizations are dedicated to stealing these cars to export them illegally from the United States", adds Morris.
Interpol explains in documents sent to BBC World, in many cases, vehicle theft is not an isolated criminal activity, but is linked to transnational organized crime and, often, other serious crimes.
And although there are no tools to determine for sure who is behind the theft of cars from the United States, the evidence points, according to experts and reports consulted by BBC Mundo, to criminal groups.
"Many times it is organized crime, cartels, and gangs that are responsible for this type of robbery, not only to sell them but sometimes they are used for drug trafficking, for people or even for their bosses to play in them," he says. Morris.
The NICB assures that many times the cars that have recovered in Mexico present impacts of a bullet, blood, remains of drugs, broken glass or other signs that they have been involved in "killings and other crimes".
"Basically, many of these cars, mainly the SUVs, are used by cartels or drug dealers as a means of transport to commit their misdeeds," he says.
The capital Thomas Pikul of the Florida Highway Patrol explains to BBC Mundo that many of these groups that are dedicated to the theft of cars have been sophisticated their techniques as the automakers have also perfected the safety devices of vehicles.
"Stealing cars is a multifaceted crime and evolves continuously as individuals and crime syndicates modify their tactics to try to avoid the application of the law," he told BBC Mundo.
According to Morris, in recent times, the bands dedicated to these thefts are using high technology for their purposes ranging from hacking the security systems of the car to mysterious elements that amplify the signals of the keys remotely.
"You can copy the signal of your car even if you have it in your room or in your kitchen, you open your car and in the security cameras, many times what you see is someone who gets in your car as if walking out. broken or violent lock or anything like that, "he says.
According to Interpol, the use of technical devices to overcome the security features of electronic vehicles, the way they are exported, falsify documents, alter identification markers, dismantle or sell these stolen vehicles requires extensive capabilities logistics in addition to high professional and organizational levels.
But that also shows, according to Morris, that recovering these stolen vehicles is also a complicated task.
Of the total number of cars reported stolen in the United States in 2018, the NICB managed to identify more than 2,500 of them in Mexico.
But, according to the spokesperson of that organization, if taking the vehicle from the United States can take a matter of minutes, bringing it back when they are found is a task that can cost weeks, months and even years.
"It is a very complicated process because of all the legal requirements and begins with the identification of the vehicle and ends with their repatriation, but many times, after being robbed and involved in criminal activities, many cars lose their value and many insurance companies They are not interested in them, so they are auctioned for very low price, "he says.
The original text of this article was published by the BBC at the following address.