Thick with Thieves

| April 07, 2005

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

Miami Heat
Thieves learn the hard way that an idling Pete isn’t as innocent as it looks.

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.

There was no warning. Angel Gutierrez and Jose Machuat, two Miami truckers hauling South American cigarettes to Kentucky, stopped at a San Antonio, Fla., Flying J truckstop for diesel this past October. As they pumped fuel, two armed men wanting their cargo forced them into the cab. Gutierrez was shot trying to escape, while Machuat was later released unharmed.

Florida police say the two were lucky, at least luckier than Roger Ware. At a nearby truckstop weeks later, the Ohio trucker was bludgeoned to death in what police suspect was an attempted hijacking or cargo theft.

Whether it be by violence or stealth, cargo theft shadows truckers everywhere they drive and park, 24 hours a day. In addition to the safety issues for truckers, cargo theft remains a huge and growing economic problem.

The federal government has only a vague estimate of the value of cargo – $12 billion to $20 billion taken yearly in the United States. One factor that makes the crime so difficult to get a handle on is the many tactics criminals use. The boldest thieves take cargo at gunpoint, while other stolen goods are carted from warehouses in the middle of the night or simply driven away from truckstops. And a lot of the merchandise is lifted with the help of colluding truckers.

Most cargo theft falls into the organized crime category, but not in the typical Mafia-type operation. Andrew Apollony, assistant special agent in charge in the FBI’s Miami bureau, says it is more a mirror of a regular business operation, with thieves working with a number of brokers, and brokers dealing with several money men. They look for orders, establish an inventory, bargain for buying and selling prices and compete with rivals for employees and sales. It’s what FBI agent Alex Peraza calls “a cottage industry.”

Lieutenant Ed Petow, commander of the Miami-based TOMCATS (Tactical Operations Multi-Agency Cargo Anti-Theft Squad), says many stolen loads are actually taken to fill demand.

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