Violent take-over robberies are on the rise in Southern California: An investigation into the organized world of “cargo pirates.” By Mary Harris and Hetty Chang
Since the beginning of the year, nearly $30 million in cargo has been stolen off of highways and from distribution centers throughout California. That is a 40% increase over last year, according to CargoNet, a cargo theft prevention and recovery network.
Detective Gerardo Pachuca has spent 14 years working for Cargo CATS, a specialized unit within the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He says cargo theft is a "low risk, high reward" crime.
"The bad guys laugh at the system because they don't get punished severely enough," he said. Pachuca said he arrests the same suspects "over and over again."
Southern California Images in the NewsPachuca said there has been a recent surge of "takeover robberies" where suspects tie up guards at distribution centers and then go "shopping" to find the cargo they want to steal.
Surveillance video shows two men jump a fence at the far end of the lot. They get in position outside the guard shack. Then a truck comes to the gate. The 60-year-old guard exits the shack to engage the trucker, at which point he is tackled by the suspects inside the gate. The guards body is limp as the two suspects drag him to the guard shack. Pachuca said they proceeded to duct tape his hands and feet, tie him up with an extension cord, and put a trash can over his head.
"Within a couple of minutes they're in the wind, with two containers. $600,000," he said.
Another takeover robbery incident caught on camera demonstrated how quickly this kind of high-dollar heist can happen. The security guard narrates the activity to a 911 operator.
Southern California Crimes Caught on Camera"There are 2 males with guns," the operator said. Video shows multiple trucks rolling into the gate. The guard said the suspects have come to steal electronics. Surveillance video catches them hitching up to trailers. Less than ten minutes later, five trucks leave with cargo valued at $3 million. Sheriff's deputies respond immediately to the call, guided by the security guard's information. Deputies are able to recover all five loads.
In both cases, the suspects are not deterred by the presence of a security and multiple surveillance cameras. "It does not stop them. There's no fear," Pachuca said.Pachuca stressed that these are skilled and organized thieves. They work in crews, he said. These heists begin with a buyer who is looking for specific merchandise. Then locations scouts scope out distribution centers, truck stops and trucks to find that specific item. Driving a big rig takes skill, and this is often done by a former trucker. Finally, there are sellers that quickly unload the stolen goods.
The most common type of commodity targeted by cargo thieves is food and beverages. Items like energy drinks, meats, alcohol and nuts can be dispensed quickly. "Once it's consumed, it's gone," Pachuca said. "The evidence is gone. And there's no one you can prosecute for that crime."
Given the scope and price tag associated with cargo crime, Scott Cornell, Crime and Theft Specialist for Travelers Insurance, calls it "America's invisible crime." While cargo theft does not get the publicity that other crimes receive, it does impact shoppers across the country."The cost of these thefts is baked into the cost of things that we purchase, so ultimately the consumer pays for cargo theft," Cornell said.
Travelers Insurance provides insurance for trucking fleets. They have an Investigations Group that looks into cargo theft. One of the tools at their disposal is a "stinger trailer" that they lend out to law enforcement, including agencies in Southern California.
"It has covert tracking capabilities, hidden cameras, all the things that law enforcement needs," Cornell said.
James Lin is the CEO of Unis Company, a logistics business that coordinates and transports high-end goods, with an emphasis on electronics. Even though his business is transporations, Lin says he spends half his time on theft prevention.
"We don't want to be in the security business, but as a logistics provider. It's just part of the job," Lin said.
In the past, he has had drivers robbed at gunpoint. Drivers' trucks disappeared after they have gone to the restroom. He said there are also instances where drivers have been offered money "to just park and turn their heads."
With that in mind, he now loads his vehicles with three to five tracking devices. This aggressive approach has helped him reduce theft by 500 percent. Lin said of the more than 100,000 containers he shipped last year, only six were stolen.
Despite his success, Lin knows he cannot rest when it comes to theft.
"Thieves are always finding new ways to rip you off, and we will find new methodologies to prevent it," Lin said.
Click here to learn more about the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department efforts on Cargo Theft.