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Grand Theft Arizona

Arizona and Mexican cops extend the long arm of the law across the border to collar car thieves.

October 01, 2004  |  by Bryn Bailer


A glossy black Magic Eight Ball sits atop the office desk of Sgt. Michael Bannister of the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department. Bannister, the supervisor of the department's auto theft unit, picks it up and jokingly consults the oversized billiard ball. The question: Will Tucson's auto theft problem ever be a thing of the past?

Bannister flips the fortune-telling ball over, and the answer cube rises up through murky blue liquid to reveal the frustrating, but true message: "CANNOT PREDICT NOW."

Indeed, when it comes to curbing vehicle theft in Tucson-a city with one of the highest per-capita auto theft rates in the nation-the battle is often waged on uncertain ground. Funding waxes and wanes. Cases often start in one jurisdiction and end in another. Being located just 40 minutes from the notoriously permeable U.S.-Mexico border doesn't help matters, either.

"We have a huge international border issue that affects us," says Bannister. "Over 6,000 [annual] auto thefts in the city of Tucson is just an unbelievable number. It shouldn't be happening."

Trust Issues

In response to the revved up numbers, law enforcement agencies in the border region are turning to counterparts across the international line for help. They have created innovative, multi-agency programs that bridge language, training, and cultural differences, and are motivating U.S. and Mexican police to work together.


Thieves often steal cars so their parts can be sold at “chop shops,” which make a whole business of selling car parts from stolen cars. By working with Mexican police, the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department was able to shut down this chop shop.

"The problem for U.S. law enforcement, historically, is feelings of mistrust," says Sgt. Terry Starner of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. "Cops in Mexico and cops in Arizona don't talk, because of the belief-in my opinion-that [U.S. police think] all law enforcement in Mexico is corrupt. "But if you talk to the Mexican cops, they feel the same way about [law enforcement in] the United States."

The first step toward putting a dent in border-area auto theft, according to authorities in southern Arizona and the northern Mexican state of Sonora, is simple: Acknowledge that there is no international border when it comes to this highly mobile crime.

"Criminals are committing crimes in two countries, and they're back and forth all the time," says Starner, who supervises a squad of detectives that work border-region auto-theft cases. "Some of Sonora's problems are our problems, and vice versa."

Cross-Border Networking

Arizona law enforcement agencies employ many of the same anti-auto theft initiatives found in other states, including "bait car" programs, public education campaigns, and targeted surveillance of known thieves and vehicle theft hotspots. What makes the Arizona approach different is that the law enforcement community here has also created concrete programs to encourage binational cooperation.

At the center of the effort is Policia Internacional Sonora y Arizona (PISA), a homegrown, cross-border networking group. PISA began modestly enough, some 20 years ago, when a few Arizona and Sonora cops gathered over breakfast to meet counterparts they had previously only known over the phone.

Today, the group boasts hundreds of members throughout the border region, and each year hosts a well-attended, binational conference on combating crime along "the line."


Auto thieves will take anything they think they can make money on. Rather than steal the truck this trailer was attached to, thieves simply cut the straps attaching the trailer to the truck and took the motorcycles. Luckily, these were recovered.

PISA's most visible networking event is an annual, weeklong conference (held alternately in Arizona and Mexico) that offers myriad training, investigative, and professional networking opportunities. Each year, it attracts hundreds of law enforcement officers from agencies on both sides of the border, agencies ranging in size from the FBI, to the Sonora State Police, to small sheriff's departments scattered throughout rural Arizona.

"It's a nice opportunity to meet each other and work with each other, and put a face to a name," says Lt. Gerardo Castillo, operations commander of the border-area Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department. "I make sure I carry a bunch of business cards when I go."

Working relationships formed at the conference have paid off several times and not just on GTA cases.

In April, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department responded to a report of two hikers lost in southern Arizona. An Arizona search-and-rescue team was launched, but couldn't find the pair. Team members suggested that the hikers might have unknowingly crossed into Mexico.

Castillo called a contact at the Nogales (Sonora) Police Department, a lieutenant he met through PISA. The response was unexpectedly swift.

"The Nogales lieutenant's supervisor called me and said, 'What can we do to help?'" Castillo recalls. "They immediately responded to our requests, sent units out, and located [the hikers]-who actually were in Mexico."

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department has also provided assistance to Mexican police. One case involved a police officer from Sonora who was working a missing person report that involved a Mexican national. The officer suspected that the man might actually be in an Arizona jail and called Castillo to confirm the information.

Castillo says face-to-face introductions through PISA events have created personal connections that just couldn't be formed over the phone. "Whoever thought of this 20-some years ago, they knew what they were doing," he explains. "[People] say, 'You should always have a lot of tools in your bag.' This is one of them for us. It's like an all-purpose tool for dealing with someone in Mexico. If they don't have jurisdiction over the matter, they find who does."

Starner believes that such stories demonstrate the value of networking. "The mistake some U.S. law enforcement agencies make is not taking the time to get the personal relationships with their counterparts across the [U.S.-Mexico] line," he says. "But without putting forth that effort to meet and talk to people, you wouldn't obtain any information. Ironically, it's the same among U.S. agencies."

Starner adds that the formation of PISA was a thinking-outside-the-box project born of necessity.

"Law enforcement on both sides of the border recognized that they weren't going to solve their problems by themselves," Starner says. "They need each other, and each other's information. And if you're dealing with people on a regular basis-rather than just when you need something-you develop better working relationships."

Vehicle Recovery

That law enforcement reality led to the development of another anti-auto-theft effort: the fledgling Border Auto Theft Information Center (BATIC). Modeled after a pioneering program in Texas, Arizona's BATIC is a toll-free, long-distance telephone line that Sonoran police can use to seek and share information about vehicles recovered in (or stolen from) Mexico.

The telephone-based program, which began in late 2003, averages about 50 queries a day from Mexican law enforcement officers. Because Mexican cops do not have direct access to federal and state computerized crime databases, BATIC helps fill in the information gaps.


Stripping is a popular form of auto theft. Because parts are often worth more than the whole, some thieves take all the parts off of a car and leave the chassis on the side of a road. This was all that was found left inside one stripped car.

The binational design of the program is both a strength and a vulnerability, however. This issue was vividly demonstrated in the wake of recent Mexican elections, when changes in the nation's leadership resulted in reassignment and relocation of government officials from the "old guard."

That reshuffling of Mexican personnel and the loss of some previous police contacts south of the border has led Arizona authorities to reexamine how BATIC operates and possibly redefine its mission to become an informational clearinghouse for U.S. auto theft victims. While it will continue to share information with police agencies, BATIC may also lose its toll-free telephone line, further reducing the number of calls from Mexican police officers. The potential shift is a frustrating development, but also a reality when working with a foreign nation.

Other forms of communications enhancement are now being proposed to supplement or replace the telephone BATIC. Arizona officers have joined with attorneys general in Sonora and Arizona to discuss the creation of an online version of BATIC: a computer database that would allow police in Mexico and the United States to access each other's basic auto theft case information. The project would be an ambitious one, especially since computers in Mexico aren't necessarily Windows based.

Fighting Back

It may take a lot of work and money to enhance information sharing between Arizona and Mexican authorities. But the expense and the labor hours are definitely warranted.

In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 57,600 vehicles were reported stolen in Arizona. States like Texas and California have a larger number of autos stolen, but in terms of per-capita thefts, Arizona outstrips them.

Auto theft has clearly become "epidemic" in Arizona, says Mikel Longman, a 26-year police veteran and executive director of the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority. Longman's agency coordinates anti-auto theft efforts statewide, and it funds grants to police, prosecutors, and the public.

One particularly successful program funded by the Authority is the Arizona Auto Theft Task Force, sometimes known as the Regional Auto Theft Team Law Enforcement Response (RATTLER). The task force, which is supervised by the Department of Public Safety, coordinates the activities of 21 municipal, county, and state law enforcement and licensing agencies operating in Arizona.

In addition to providing technical support to Arizona police-including providing officers for surveillance operations and the like-task force members also work directly with Mexican police.

Along with civilian agencies like the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles, they conduct free training seminars for Sonoran police. The educational programs have included classes on stolen vehicle identification, firearms training, interviewing techniques, and a primer on repatriating stolen Mexican vehicles found in the United States. Language issues are also taken into consideration, with Spanish-speaking instructors and Spanish-language training materials.

"Mexican authorities are very receptive," says Charles Knapp, a task force detective based in the border city of Nogales, Ariz.

"Unlike here, these guys do not get much training," says Knapp, who is also an instructor for the motor vehicle department. "We find that they're starved for any training in law enforcement that they can get."

The cooperation is paying off. Since its inception in 1997, the task force has recovered more than 15,000 stolen vehicles, with an economic value of more than $140 million. Before RATTLER was formed, U.S. authorities recovered fewer than a dozen cars from Mexico every 30 days; today, they recover an average of 70 each month.

Arizona officers say RATTLER training provides benefits for law enforcement efforts on both sides of the international line.

After training, Mexican police officers "know what types of vehicles to look for," Bannister explains. "When we get the information over to them, for example, 'Dodge pickup trucks are hot this month, and [thieves] are disabling an ignition system inside the vehicle,' we let them know that they need to look for a broken rear window in the truck and then they're able to spot those just as easily as we are."

Starner says that the outreach efforts demonstrate the power of learning to trust colleagues from a foreign and sometimes confusing culture.

"Because we've had the dubious honor in the last few years of being the No. 1 state for vehicle theft per capita, we have taken a very progressive approach in using non-traditional methods," Starner says.

"We're trying to break down barriers. We're trying to get an easier exchange of information. We're trying to get the cops to talk to the cops," he adds.

The Grand Theft Auto State

Auto theft is a problem nationwide, but this crime hits the people of Arizona particularly hard. In its annual reporting of state-by-state auto theft rates, the National Insurance Crime Bureau consistently ranks Arizona as the car theft capital of the nation. From 1985 to 2001, in fact, vehicle theft rates in the Grand Canyon State jumped more than 356 percent.

It's easy to see why Arizona is popular with car thieves: The state has an exploding population base, a 354-mile land border with Mexico, and rust-free automobiles that hold their value longer than those from harsher climes. It also has an active methamphetamine trade, financed in part by auto theft.

Another factor that makes Arizona such a land of opportunity for car thieves is that many Arizonans own the rugged, high-profile vehicles that are perfect for resale in Mexico and other Central American countries or for hauling illegal immigrants or narcotics across the border. It's no coincidence that the top three most-stolen vehicles in Tucson are pickup trucks.

Finally, it's easy to move stolen vehicles in and out of Arizona. In addition to official transportation routes, including seven ports of entry with Mexico, the state is also scarred by untold numbers of secretive but well-traveled desert roads created by smugglers.

Combating Auto Theft

If you are looking to start an anti-auto-theft initiative in your jurisdiction, you may want to consider the following advice from the Tucson Police Department's GTA unit.

  • Recognize that your personnel are your most valuable resource.
  • Set realistic goals for reducing auto thefts.
  • Make time for proactive work, such as surveillance at hot spots or of known local thieves.
  • Obtain timely intelligence on repeat offenders or hot spots.
  • Share information with patrol officers and citizens. They're in a position to provide in-the-field information about theft trends and the whereabouts of specific stolen vehicles.
  • Establish a crime prevention program such as "Watch Your Car" or "Lock Out Auto Theft."
  • Use the local media to keep your prevention message in the public eye.
  • Work with local prosecutors for tough plea bargains and sentencing.
  • Partner with state task forces and other agencies. They are working the same bad guys

Popular Car Theft Targets

Between 400 and 500 cars are stolen each month in Tucson, Ariz. While passenger cars top the list in many U.S. cities, pickup trucks and high-profile vehicles are the most popular stolen vehicles along the border.

Autos stolen in Arizona are often used to perpetrate other crimes, including narcotics smuggling or transporting illegal aliens from Mexico in "people smuggling" operations.

Tucson's Top 10

Ford F150 and F250 pickups

Chevrolet pickup

Dodge pickup

Jeep Cherokee

Dodge Neon

Dodge Intrepid

Honda Accord

Honda Civic

Chevrolet Blazer

Oldsmobile Cutlass

-SOURCE: TUCSON POLICE DEPARTMENT

U.S. Top Ten

Toyota Camry

Honda Accord

Honda Civic

Chevrolet full-size (C/K Series) pickup

Ford full-size pickup (F150/250/350)

Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee

Oldsmobile

Cutlass/Supreme/Ciera

Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan

Ford Taurus

Toyota Corolla

-SOURCE: NATIONAL INSURANCE CRIME CENTER (2002)

 

U.S. Car Theft Capitals

 

Many of the top metropolitan areas for vehicle theft are in or near ports and/or the Mexican or Canadian borders.

Phoenix

Fresno, Calif.

Modesto, Calif.

Stockton-Lodi, Calif.

Las Vegas, Nev.

Miami

Sacramento, Calif.

Oakland, Calif.

Seattle

Tacoma, Wash.

Detroit

San Diego

Tucson, Ariz.

Jackson, Miss.

Riverside, Calif.

Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, Calif.

Houston

Denver

Los Angeles

Dallas

Albuquerque, N.M.

Newark, N.J.

Jersey City, N.J.

Memphis, Tenn.

Kansas City, Kan./Mo.

- SOURCE: NATIONAL INSURANCE CRIME BUREAU (2002)

Bryn Bailer is a former newspaper reporter from Tucson, Ariz. Now a freelance writer, she specializes in writing about public safety issues.

Tags: Tucson PD, U.S.-Mexico Border, RATTLER Training, Smuggling, Auto Theft, Santa Cruz County (Ariz.) Sheriff


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Pat @ 1/10/2012 5:19 AM

Where autos (or land/houses) are not seen as personal property but as resources for survival, theft creates a peculiar problem for individuals threatening their very existence and welfare. There is no current reason to place these items in a category other than that of survival and welfare sufficient for law enforcement to be lax in bringing to justice those who would impede survival and welfare for their own profits.

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