Miami Heat

| April 07, 2005

Billions of dollars are lost and many lives risked every year as ever-bolder thieves loot the trucking industry.

Thick with Thieves
The roots of cargo theft reach inside and outside the industry.

Some thieves turn to desperate measures to take cargo.

Dwindling Resources
Cargo theft takes a back seat to war on terror.

Protecting the Goods
Fleets, retailers and trucking organizations all have a vested interest in security.

Big Gain, Little Pain
Weak penalties, high profits make cargo theft more attractive than dealing in narcotics.

A sting operation hung in the balance on a sticky Miami night last summer. The edgy cleverness of an informant, the tense hours of dangerous work by an undercover detective and the exhaustive scheming by the TOMCATS (Tactical Operations Multi-Agency Cargo Anti-Theft Squad) came together as civilians were cleared from the area where lawmen positioned themselves for a possible takedown.

Part of the meticulous planning that led to this point involved covering the many contingencies of such an unpredictable operation.

“What if there’s a shooting, a fire, an escape attempt, an accident?” says TOMCATS commander, Ed Petow, whose team may create a planning document 50 pages long for such stings. “The plan is exhaustive and approved by the heads of all the agencies involved. It can be overwhelming getting it all down on paper.”

Then there are technicalities, such as limitations the agents face in establishing the sting. TOMCATS detective Hugo Gomez says an undercover lawman, for legal reasons, can do nothing to lead the thieves to act. “If they say they will, or might, use guns, I just say, ‘Hey, that’s up to you, don’t ask me.’ Any opinion of mine could be entrapment.”

Two previous TOMCATS stings helped put a dent in armed tractor-trailer robberies in South Florida. In the first, a man with a .25-caliber automatic died in a shootout with a SWAT team. In the second, a man was wounded after he and a cohort, shouting that they were FBI agents and demanding the driver open his door, were confronted by a real FBI SWAT team.

The case that led to the sting last summer began when suspects told an informant they wanted to do a home invasion. He played along. But two days before the invasion, the men suddenly called it off. “They said there were too many intangibles, too many things that could go wrong,” says Petow.

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