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Combatting vehicle theft along the Texas border.

During the past decade, automobile theft emerged as one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the number of automobile thefts increased from 1,131,700 in 1980 to 1,661,700 in 1991.(1) The aggregate costs of vehicle replacement, investigation by law enforcement agencies, prosecution of offenders, and payments from insurance companies make this an especially expensive crime. In 1990 alone, vehicle thefts in the United States resulted in the loss of $8 billion.(2)

To address the dramatic rise in vehicle thefts experienced along the Texas-Mexico border, several law enforcement agencies in southern Texas formed a task force that combined specialized investigative techniques and innovative prosecutive arrangements to reduce the number of vehicle thefts. The proactive measures employed by the South Texas Auto Theft Enforcement Task Force (STATETF) have proved effective in apprehending offenders and reducing the vehicle theft rate in the region.


Like many parts of the country, the State of Texas experienced a sharp increase in vehicle theft rates over the past decade. According to figures from the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS), automobile thefts in the State grew by 96 percent, from approximately 83,000 in 1980 to over 163,000 in 1991.(3) Although vehicle theft generally had been considered a problem plaguing the large cities of north and central Texas, it also had become a common crime in the small cities and towns of south Texas along the Rio Grande Valley in recent years. The TDPS estimates that the number of automobile thefts in the valley increased by 80 percent between 1980 and 1989.(4)

Several unique factors have fueled the increased theft rates along the Rio Grande Valley. The most obvious is the close proximity of these Texas border communities to Mexico. In fact, international bridges provide direct links to Mexico from the cities of Brownsville, El Paso, and Laredo. McAllen, Texas, is located fewer than 10 miles from the border. Always opportunists, thieves take advantage of the proximity of these cities to the Mexican border. Often, they steal automobiles in Texas and cross into Mexico before the victims realize that their cars are missing.

At the same time, rapid population growth and urbanization in northern Mexico had increased greatly the demand for automobiles from the United States. One study revealed that between 80 and 90 percent of the vehicles stolen in border cities end up in Mexico.(5)

In addition, the large number of tourists and "Winter Texans" - seasonal residents who spend as much as 6 months in the valley region - unwittingly provide thieves with an increased selection of choice vehicles. The TDPS estimates that up to 125,000 Winter Texans migrate to south Texas each year, providing thieves with an abundance of potential targets.

Finally, because of a lack of personnel and coordination between Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies, most border crossing stations do not perform around-the-clock inspections to check for stolen vehicles. Experienced thieves quickly learn the best methods to circumvent the security measures in place at the border crossings.

All of these factors combine to create an environment exceedingly conducive to vehicle theft. Several law enforcement agencies in the border region viewed the precipitous rise in vehicle theft rates as a challenge to develop new approaches to combat an old crime.


Prompted by a nearly 75-percent increase in vehicle thefts in the city during 1991, the McAllen, Texas, Police Department joined with several neighboring agencies to establish the South Texas Auto Theft Enforcement Task Force. The STATETF supplements the efforts of local law enforcement agencies by acting in a proactive manner to combat vehicle theft.

Because the STATETF covers four counties encompassing several thousand square miles, the task force is divided into two units - east end and west end. This article discusses the activities of the west end unit, based in McAllen.

The West End Unit

The west end unit of the STATETF covers 3 counties and consists of a commanding officer, 3 team leaders, 15 investigators, and a secretary. Nine local agencies contribute personnel to the west end unit.

Specialized Teams

Three teams comprise the unit, each made up of five investigators and a team leader. The investigators are assigned to teams based on their experience and expertise in certain aspects of automobile theft. Each of the three teams handles specific duties.

Investigators on the first team specialize in surveillance techniques. Using crime analysis data, this team targets locations with a large number of reported automobile thefts, such as shopping malls, hospitals, grocery stores, movie theaters, and discount stores. The team also uses crime analysis data to identify the vehicle models most targeted by thieves, as well as the most common time of the thefts. To make the most of their resources, the team's investigators plan their surveillance tactics based on this information.

Investigators on the second team inspect automobile junkyards, vehicle repair shops, and used car lots to identify stolen automobiles by checking the vehicle identification numbers of suspected vehicles. They also check for stolen parts, particularly engines. The team's investigative mission focuses on locating chop-shops - usually housed in garages or repair shops - that specialize in stripping vehicles and selling their parts.

The third team consists of investigators with extensive experience in undercover cases, especially drug operations. The team uses confidential informants to develop intelligence information on automobile theft rings. In addition, the team's investigators assume undercover roles as sellers and potential buyers of stolen vehicles.

Officer Assignment

The participating agencies commit task force members to the unit on a permanent basis. The task force maintains full operational control over the officers assigned to it. However, each agency maintains full administrative control, handling such matters as discipline, promotion, and transfer.

Assignment to the task force is handled in one of two ways. In some cases, agencies simply assign officers to the task force. In other cases, agencies ask for applicants. Task force members then interview the interested applicants before choosing an investigator.


Prior to the creation of the task force, automobile thieves usually were charged with one of two crimes: Theft of vehicle or burglary of vehicle, both third-degree felonies. As the lowest-degree felony in Texas, third-degree felony charges impose penalties of 2 to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. In many cases, suspects posted bond - usually between $5,000 and $10,000 - and then fled into Mexico to avoid prosecution.

STATETF investigators wanted to ensure that offenders were prosecuted successfully. They conferred with the Hidalgo County, Texas, District Attorney's office to examine different options to enhance the prosecution of automobile thieves. These consultations proved very rewarding.

Investigators and officials from the district attorney's office reached an agreement that allowed multiple charges to be filed in the majority of vehicle theft cases. Now, when three or more subjects are arrested during the same incident, investigators use the Texas Penal Code statute entitled "Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity."(6) This statute raises each offense one degree higher than could be charged otherwise. Hence, a third-degree felony offense can be filed as a second-degree felony, a more serious charge carrying a punishment of 2 to 20 years in addition to the $10,000 fine. By filing the original charge with the organized criminal activity statute, bond increases to between $20,000 and $25,000, thus reducing the likelihood that a suspect can post bond and flee.

Although task force investigators found the organized criminal activity statute useful, they determined that they required additional prosecutive measures to address the wide range of offenses committed by automobile thieves. For example, during surveillance operations, investigators observed thieves using master keys to open some vehicles. These master keys could be used to access multiple vehicles of the same model. Investigators seized several suspects with as many as a dozen such keys in their possession.

To address this problem, the district attorney's office agreed to charge suspects who used master keys during a theft with "Unlawful Use of Criminal Instruments."(7) By applying this felony charge, task force investigators and prosecutors in the district attorney's office encouraged courts to set a higher bond in such cases, thereby decreasing the chances that offenders could post bond and escape prosecution.


A grant from the Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Authority (ATPA) made possible the establishment of the STATETF. The Texas State legislature created the ATPA in 1991 with the express purpose of reducing the motor vehicle theft rate in Texas. Money in the fund comes from a $1 fee assessed on every vehicle issued insurance in the State.

The ATPA awards the funds to vehicle theft projects across the State. The grant covers operating costs for the South Texas Automobile Theft Enforcement Task Force, including salaries, fringe benefits, and overtime for personnel; the leasing of unmarked vehicles, cellular telephones, pagers, and office space; supplies; fuel; and a clothing allowance. Task force investigators also used ATPA grant money to establish a special confidential informant fund.


To evaluate the effectiveness of the STATETF, participating agencies analyzed arrest reports and automobile recovery figures for the first year of the task force's operation. From April 1993 to March 1994, the west end unit of the STATETF made 299 felony and 48 misdemeanor arrests and recovered 299 stolen vehicles. Compared to stolen vehicle reports from the same period in 1992-93, the combined number of stolen vehicles for west end agencies decreased by 35 percent. Moreover, automobile thefts in the City of McAllen declined by nearly 45 percent during this time.


The success of the South Texas Auto Theft Enforcement Task Force demonstrates the value of using a multijurisdictional task force approach to combat such crimes as automobile theft. By combining the resources of several law enforcement agencies with innovative funding and prosecution agreements, the task force has reduced the automobile theft rate in south Texas.

The dedication and specialized skills of STATETF investigators haved played a significant part in bringing about sharp reductions in vehicle theft in a relatively short period of time. Administrators of the agencies that participate in the task force believe that it will continue to impact automobile theft along the Texas-Mexico border for a long time to come.


1 Crime in the United States - 1991, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Federal Bureau of Investigation (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992).

2 National Insurance Crime Bureau Fact Sheet, Palos Hills, Illinois, 1991.

3 Annual Report 1991, Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin, Texas.

4 Ibid.

5 M. Miller, "Vehicle Theft Along the Texas-Mexico Border," Journal of Borderland Studies, vol. 38, 1987, 205-210.

6 Texas Penal Code Sec. 71.02.

7 Texas Penal Code Sec. 16.01.

Dr. Ethridge is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, Texas.

Lieutenant Gonzalez of the McAllen, Texas, Polic Department commands the west end unit of the South Texas Auto Theft Enforcement Task Force.
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Author:Gonzales, Raul
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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