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Lawless Roads.

Mexican truckers fight roadside bandits at every turn.

AFTER LOSING TWO COSTLY TRUCKLOADS OF CALIFORNIA ALMONDS AND one of Norwegian cod to marauders, Adolfo Juarez knew it was time to fight back. So, the businessman from Mexico City began hiring security guards to escort his goods from the Veracruz coast and the Texas border to their final destination in the stores and markets of the capital.

"You have to adapt to the circumstances," says the owner of the import business Encuentro S.A. de C.V "If circumstances say you need more protection, then you should get more."

On Mexico's roads, robberies of merchandise have grown almost as common as gaping potholes. Organized bands of thieves steal hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods each year, spawning a hostile climate for entrepreneurs, truckers and insurers alike.

The National Cargo Transport Chamber (Canacar), an organization comprising some 180,000 truck owners, says an average of 800 trucks are reported hijacked every year at a loss of US$253 million. That's bad news for a country where 90% of all goods are transported by truck.

The vast majority of robberies, however, go unreported, officials say. In a few rural areas like Fib de Caballo, Guerrero, local militias are even administering their own justice: They hang hijackers.

The states of Queretaro, Michoacan, Puebla, San Luis Potosi and Sinaloa are hotspots for robberies. But the roads leading into sprawling, poverty-plagued Mexico City form the frenetic stage where most thefts of cargo occur, says the transport Chamber's Vice President Manuel Gomez. "Eighty to 90% (of robberies) happen in Mexico City and the surrounding metropolitan area," he says. Stealing and dealing. While no product is safe, meats, wines, coffee, canned goods, electronics and clothes are among the most attractive targets for raiders. Such items get consumed quickly or are absorbed without much notice into the bustling tianguis, or markets, of Mexico City and other urban areas.

The hijackers are well-armed and highly organized, with brisk distribution networks to fence the cargo. "It's not easy to hijack a truck and dispose of 25 tons of whatever product it is." Gomez says. "These are huge chains of illegal distribution."

Fingers point in different directions over exactly who the plunderers are, and who's tipping them off to oncoming freights. Some see the hand of corrupt lawmen at work, particularly because investigations into thefts rarely yield fruit. Others see evidence of inside jobs by people in the very companies that own the goods, the theory being that they know what's inside the vehicles and can earn as much with a simple call to a crime syndicate as they can in a month's honest work. Similar suspicions accrue to customs brokers and the truck drivers themselves.

Whoever the guilty parties may be, robberies represent an enormous headache for the companies whose products are stolen and for the trucking company transporting the goods, says Jose Garduno, owner of a Mexico City trucking company, Transportes Terrestres.

In October 1999, one of Garduno's drivers was moving more than $50,000 worth of soap, detergent and other products for Procter & Gamble when he was assaulted in the tiny central state of Tlaxcala by armed bandits who made off with the 18-wheeler. Procter & Gamble had insured the load, but Garduno says he still had to wade through endless red tape to clear his driver--the initial suspect in the crime--and recover his truck, which was later found two states away in Oaxaca.

When Mexico City businessman Adolfo Juarez got hit a few years ago, he lost $100,000 of almonds in a Mexico City heist, and another load worth $100,000. He suffered a further reversal in 1996 when a $120,000 shipment of cod was hijacked in Veracruz. As usual in such cases, the merchandise was never found. Juarez did recover his financial losses but faced skyrocketing insurance rates.

Insurance companies have taken a big hit covering stolen cargo and, increasingly, refuse to offer protection against robberies, says Arnoldo Trevino, an insurance agent in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a city across the border from McAllen, Texas. "On the border we insure them, but not in the interior," he says, adding that businesses that take preventive measures against thefts get better rates.

Security rides shotgun. After suffering his third robbery, Juarez took action to better protect his goods. He began contracting only those trucking companies equipped with Global Positioning System technology, which uses satellites to provide a truck's location, and hired private security firms to ride with his cargo. He hasn't lost a load in more than three years. "Why don't they rob me? Because I have an escort," he says.

Private security firms are among the few beneficiaries of the truck-theft problem. Companies like Grupo Diamante of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas have become expert at giving safe passage to rigs bearing IBM computers, Estee Lauder cosmetics and a host of other valued items.

"It's a necessary service because of the crime problem we have in this country," says Ricardo Hernandez, an administrator for Grupo Diamante. "There aren't enough authorities to stop it. In many cases, it's the police themselves [doing the robbing]."

For roughly $1,500, Grupo Diamante will dispatch three guards in a late-model Volkswagen to accompany a trucker during the 18-hour journey from the border to Mexico City, or wherever else the client needs to go. The guards cannot carry guns, but Hernandez says they have a better weapon--communication.

Over radios, the guards call the base frequently to update their location, and maintain a steady dialogue with the truck driver as well. When they spot anything out of the ordinary, such as a vehicle lingering suspiciously behind the rig, they may ask colleagues at home base to call the police.

Increasingly, trucking companies equip their vehicles with satellite technology to monitor journeys. "It doesn't stop robberies, but it can make it easier to find the truck and the goods," says Transportes Terrestres's Garduno, who installed a global positioning system in his six trucks following a spate of robberies.

But such technology exceeds the financial reach of many small companies. Indeed, of the 300,000 trucks operated by cargo transport chamber members, only about 4,000 have satellite equipment, the transport chamber's Gomez says.

Many truckers opt for simple safety measures like traveling in convoys or carrying a cellular phone. Members of unions frequently trade information about dangerous roads. "Being united, we communicate more," says Damazo Villafranca Cantu, a representative of the truckers' group Union de Transportistas del Norte de Tamaulipas and owner of a small trucking concern. "When you're informed, it is possible to do things more safely."

Even as more trucking companies go high-tech, some owners of merchandise struggle to keep pace with the increasing costs of safety, and would rather keep prices low for clients than pay top dollar to hire security firms and trucks with fancy technology.

The threat of robberies does not outweigh the need to keep costs down, says Luis Rivas of Comercial Izadora, a Reynosa company that imports meats from the United States into Mexico. To shave expenses, the company relies more on crossed fingers than special security measures when shipping its beef and pork.

"Our overhead would be higher, so we would have to raise our prices," Rivas says, explaining why the company doesn't invest in satellite technology or even theft insurance. "We have to take our chances because we have to take care of our clients." Rivas' company has not suffered a robbery in the three years, he says.

Javier Flores hasn't been so lucky. The 23-year-old from Saltillo, Coahuila, had been a trucker for only a year-and-a-half when he fell victim to his first robbery.

It happened in May 1999, when the young man and his brother formed a two-truck caravan freighting iron from Saltillo to Mazatlan, Sinaloa. His borther's rig got a flat in the mountains of Sinaloa. As they made roadside repairs, a car pulled up and four men with pistols emerged barking threats. The assailants promptly disappeared with the trucks, taking with them the expensive cargo and Flores's peace of mind. "You do your job as always, only you're afraid," he says.

Truck hijackings appear to be on the rise, according to the cargo transport chamber, which reported in early 1999 that heists were up 15% from 1998. The problem reached sufficient levels of concern in Mexico City for the Public Safety Ministry to create a permanent force of motorcycle patrols to guard main trucking routes.

But some people liken police protecting trucks to mice guarding cheese.

Samuel Sepulveda, a 40-year-old Jalisco native who has spent half his life driving rigs, still wonders who was behind the theft of his cement truck in 1994. He was on his way to San Luis Potosi when two men wearing the black uniforms of federal judicial police stopped him and accused him of running unspecified contraband. They took his truck and left him high and dry in the middle of nowhere. To this day, Sepulveda wonders if they really were police. "There's still that nagging question," he says.

At least one thing is for sure, though; Mexico's roads are increasingly lawless.
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Title Annotation:truck hijackings common in Mexico
Comment:Lawless Roads.(truck hijackings common in Mexico)
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Previous Article:Surviving the Serra.
Next Article:TRADE TRAIL.

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