Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.

Highway Robbery

Something wasn't right. Jack Cox could feel that in his gut. The seal on the trailer had been broken. The trailer's identification number had been painted over. And now the trucker didn't want to get out of the cab. Cox stood behind the spotlight mounted on his squad car and waited.

Up until that point, it had been a quiet night. Most nights were in Eminence, Missouri. Come summer time, when the tourists came to canoe the river or hike the Ozarks, things would pick up a bit. But it was February now, too cold to do much besides stay inside and watch television, which was fine with Cox. He was the only cop in town, so the slower the night, the better.

The call had come in just as Cox was pulling into a convenience store. An 18-wheeler had been stolen in Crawford County, 85 miles north. Dispatch gave him the description of the rig.


cargo theft

Twenty years before, Cox had been a trucker. He liked to joke that he became a cop because he wanted a safer job. Once, while carrying a load of explosives, Cox was nearly hijacked. He was pulling out of a truck stop near Philadelphia when he noticed he was being followed. When the car tried to run him off the road, Cox called the highway patrol, who told him to keep driving until a trooper could catch up. He took every exit he could, looping back and forth onto the highway, until the trooper arrived. He would later learn that he'd been followed since he left the warehouse where he picked up the explosives.

Cargo theft had always been a problem in the trucking industry, and in the 20 years since Cox quit driving, it had only gotten worse.

As soon as Cox got off the radio with dispatch, he heard a semi rumbling down the hill into town. He would remark later what an incredible coincidence it was. He waited for the truck at the convenience store, and when it passed him, he flipped on his lights and pulled it over. Now he was standing on the side of the road, waiting for the driver to come down from the cab.

He looked again at the truck. He couldn't be absolutely sure it had been stolen. The tractor didn't match the description dispatch had given him, but the trailer did. He ran his finger over the white paint that was obscuring the identification number. It was fresh. Besides that, truckers rarely if ever used Highway 19. There were too many hills. A semi on Highway 19 was either lost or avoiding the interstate on purpose.

Finally, the driver stepped out of the cab. He spoke little English but enough for Cox to make out that he was headed to Memphis in a hurry. Cox asked for his bills of lading, which would tell him that the driver was allowed to carry this load. The driver hemmed and hawed, said something about the owner of the truck and how he was a Cuban immigrant and the hurry that he was in. Finally, he just gave up and hung his head. "Just take me to jail," he said.

When Cox searched the truck he found a dismantled tracking device, two loaded handguns within reach of the driver's seat and a road atlas. As Cox suspected, the route the driver had marked snaked along backcountry roads. This had been a professional job.

The next morning, the FBI office in St. Louis called. They would be taking the suspect into custody. In the days that followed, Cox would learn the story behind the truck. It had begun its journey at a Motorola facility in Fort Worth, destined for Plainfield, Indiana. On February 27, the driver stopped at a truck stop in Missouri to shower and eat. When he came back out some time later, the trailer of his truck was missing.

Fortunately, the trailer was equipped with a GPS tracking device hidden in the cargo. Police were notified that the truck had gone off course and was probably stolen. It was carrying a load of cell phones worth $4.8 million.

The man who stole the truck, Jose Manuel Perez-Garcia, was sentenced in March to 30 months in prison. He and his attorneys both declined comment. But sources close to the investigation say Garcia, 44, was a reputed member of the Cuban Mafia, which is perhaps more actively involved in cargo theft than any other criminal organization in the United States. Garcia and an associate had been following the truck since it left Fort Worth, sources say. When the driver of the truck went inside the truck stop, Garcia and possibly one or more associates unhooked the trailer-load of cell phones and reattached it to a truck Garcia was driving. Had the truck made it to Memphis, authorities believe, the load of cell phones would have then been shipped to Miami and from there to the Middle East.

Every day around the world, high-value cargo is stolen from ships, planes, trains and trucks. In the United States, where 70 percent of all goods are hauled by truck, 18-wheelers are the most common target, especially those carrying electronics, designer clothing, pharmaceuticals, cigarettes and alcohol. Nationally, anywhere from $10 to $15 billion in cargo is stolen annually, according to the FBI. To put those numbers in perspective, that's the kind of business Anheuser-Busch does in a year. Or put another way, that's the GDP of a small African country.

Cargo theft affects us all: Experts say it adds 20 percent to the price of a computer and about 5 percent to the price of a designer shirt. And yet, most people don't even realize it exists. That's because in the United States, cargo theft is all but invisible. In places such as Sao Paulo or Mexico City, trucks are hijacked daily. Shootouts are common. But in the United States, roadside hijackings almost never happen.

Instead, cargo heists happen quietly, right under the noses of police officers. Sixty to 80 percent of the time, experts say, it's an inside job. That could mean a driver is in on the heist (trucking companies are notorious for hiring ex-cons), or it could mean a warehouse worker who knows trucking routes and shipping schedules is feeding that information to someone on the outside.

"They'll wait for a driver to make a mistake," says Dan Purtell, a supply chain security consultant in Phoenix with First Advantage. "It takes a while for glow plugs to heat up, so drivers often leave their trucks running while they stop to eat or shower at a truck stop. Drivers carry two sets of keys, but it's easy to bust out a window or simply hook the trailer onto another tractor."

Cargo thieves also steal trucks that are parked at warehouses or unsecured drop lots. In Georgia there was recently a $22 million theft of two trailers loaded with pharmaceuticals. "They were preloaded the night before," Purtell says. "Common sense says you don't leave two trailers loaded with $11 million apiece in cargo in an unsecured lot. These guys just backed up to the distribution center and pulled away from there."

These types of heists are almost always carried out by organized crime syndicates. Their methods range from the advanced (hidden video cameras in trash cans that capture warehouse PIN codes) to the primitive (dumpster-diving for shipping routes). Consider these examples:

  • In 2002, a police helicopter spotted a group of men trying to steal $600,000 in computer monitors from a warehouse in Ontario, California. The men fled in a white van, tossing radios and gloves out the window as they drove. Later, after the men had been detained, police found that the warehouse alarm had been tampered with and a security camera had been disabled. At a nearby truck stop, they also found a tractor-trailer belonging to one of the men. And when they searched the men's hotel room, they found airline tickets for return flights to Florida. The men, all Cuban nationals, were suspected of similar heists in at least six other states, including Texas. Their attorney insisted they had no involvement in the "so-called Cuban Mafia." They were sentenced to terms ranging from 40 months to 5 years.
  • In 2003, a crew out of Miami stole $12 million in merchandise from a New Jersey warehouse. Once they knew they had the right warehouse, they cut its alarm wires and waited for police or warehouse employees to respond, a process they repeated until there was no response. At that point, they used the warehouse's own forklifts to load their tractor-trailers, which carried the goods down to Miami, where they were ultimately sold.

These examples, from methodology to the players involved, are typical of high-level cargo theft, says Alan Spear, an investigator for MRC Investigations, a private firm outside Chicago that specializes in cargo theft. In New York, Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican gangs have taken over what was once the domain of Italian crime families, according to the New York Daily News. One of the most well-known of these thieves is a New Jersey truck driver named Jose Maldonado, who has ripped off more than $3 million in cargo since 1993. He was most recently charged for helping a band of train robbers known as the ConRail Boyz, whom police say were the most notorious cargo gang of all time.

Suspected members of the Miami-based Cuban Mafia have carried out cargo heists in Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis and other cities across the country. Another group, led by a Mexican national named Juan Luis Villalobos, stole about $7 million in cargo between 1998 and 2000—everything from sleeping bags to electronics to breakfast cereal. His underground network extended throughout the West, with key associates in Denver, Portland and Los Angeles.

But it's not just ethnic gangs that are involved in cargo theft. In 2002, a Memphis trucker named Catherine Harris testified that she twice sold stolen loads of cereal and cough syrup to a warehouse that was a known fencing operation. On one occasion she was paid $14,000 for a load of Kellogg's cereal. On another, she was paid $22,000 for a load of Procter & Gamble pharmaceuticals.

Cargo theft pays, and that's why organized crime does it. Compared to dealing drugs or robbing banks, its penalties amount to a slap on the wrist. Maldonado, for example, was arrested dozens of times between 1993 and 2003 on cargo theft-related charges. Each time he would wag his finger at police and smile, according to the New York Daily News. "You know, you know," he would say, meaning that within days or even hours he would be back on the streets.

Investigating these crimes is a nightmare. Typically the company that owns the property doesn't want it back because they can't re-sell stolen goods. That means police have to store it. Usually the cargo ends up being auctioned off. John Albrecht, vice president of Transport Security Inc. in Minnesota, estimates that it takes $10 to $15 in increased revenue to make up for every dollar lost to theft, a cost that's passed on to the consumer.

And yet in most cities there is no concerted effort to topple cargo gangs. Task forces in Miami, New York, Memphis and Los Angeles recover millions of dollars in stolen freight every year. In fact, the Los Angeles County CargoCats have recovered more than $250 million in stolen property since 1990. But the success of these task forces has done little to slow cargo gangs or the flow of stolen merchandise into the black market. If anything, it has only pushed them farther inland, from port cities to major transportation hubs such as Dallas. Call it the balloon effect—push them out of one area, and they will pop up in another.

Part of the problem, perhaps the single biggest problem when it comes to cargo theft, is that, unlike other major crimes, the FBI is not tracking it. As a result, local police departments have no idea how big the problem is in their cities. They also have little incentive to chase it. When a tractor-trailer is stolen, it is categorized as a vehicle theft. Most cops don't worry about the cargo.

For decades, trade groups representing the trucking and retail industries have tried to get the FBI to add cargo theft to its Uniform Crime Report, and for decades they have been ignored. That changed after September 11, 2001, when securing the nation's supply chain became a top priority. When the Patriot Act was reauthorized in March it included several provisions relating to the trucking industry. It increased prison terms for cargo theft and mandated that the FBI start tracking cargo heists beginning next year.

"I think cities are going to hate it because it's going to be of such high value, and it's going to up their crime stats," says David Wallace, a detective in Dallas who investigates cargo thefts. "People are going to be surprised at how big it is."

On the outskirts of southeast Dallas, past a neon blur of fast-food restaurants, a cluster of truck stops dot a five-mile stretch of road where three interstate highways intersect. If you want to see how big of a transportation hub Dallas has become, there is no better spot than the Pilot Truck Stop off Interstate 20 and Lancaster Road. Five thousand trucks a day pass through it.

I went there in August with Dallas police officer Terry Peters, better known to Dallas Observer readers as the whore cop. When Peters isn't chasing truck-stop hookers and pimps, he's chasing stolen freight. In the last nine months, Peters and two other officers in the Southeast Patrol Division have recovered more than $7.4 million in stolen freight.

"If we three cops, just targeting it a little bit, are recovering that much cargo, that tells you how big it is," Peters said.

On my first night with Peters we found a pimp named Country in a field beside the truck stop. He'd been smoking crack with a hooker named Cookie Monster. Peters knew them well—he'd arrested both several times. "How you doing?" he asked Country, shining a flashlight in the pimp's eyes. Country, who was dressed in dirty shorts sagging halfway down his butt, simply nodded and looked away. "Country's just a small-time dope head," Peters said as we drove away.

A few weeks later, Peters called to say he'd run into Country again. This time, Country had really gotten himself into trouble: He had tried to steal a tractor-trailer loaded with telephone poles.

It happened like this: Country and two hookers named Peaches and Blue Eyes convinced a trucker to rent a room near the truck stop where they could smoke crack and have sex. When the driver went to check in, Country decided to steal the truck.

By chance, Peters was near the hotel, towing a truck that had been stolen and stripped. When he saw the stolen rig barreling toward him, he shined his flashlight in the cab to see who was driving. "Country," he muttered. "That dumb-ass." Seconds later, the driver of the truck came running out of the hotel. "My truck's been stolen," he hollered at Peters. So Peters jumped in his squad car and took off after Country, who thought he could lose Peters, but the cop cut him off before Country could get the rig on the highway. Country jumped in the back of the cab and threw one of the hookers he had with him in the front seat. He wasn't driving, he insisted. But Peters knew better. So he threw Country in jail and notified the owner of the load that he had his telephone poles.

In all likelihood, Country wouldn't have known what to do with the telephone poles, Peters said. But he would have sold everything else on the truck. There are trucking supply stores up and down Highway 175, especially in Pleasant Grove, that will buy stolen tires, wheels, seats or anything else that can be stripped out of a truck, Peters said.

This is the most common type of cargo theft in Dallas, and it happens all the time. Peters regularly comes across trailers abandoned in empty lots. Sometimes they are full of cargo, and sometimes they are empty. He's recovered stolen loads of furniture, lettuce, televisions, tires, cigarettes and electronics.

"You have your levels of crime," Peters said. "At the bottom level you have your crimes of opportunity. That might mean a driver turning over his load to support a drug habit. Say he's got a load of watermelons; he'll go down the road and sell them to every mom-and-pop store along the way. Then you've got the ones where a driver drops his trailer to get something to eat. He'll drop his trailer any place: at a truck stop, on the street, on back roads. Drivers are lazy and irresponsible. So [a thief] comes along with his bobtail, hooks up the trailer and takes off."

It's a well-known secret that trucking companies regularly hire drunks, drug addicts and ex-cons. In fact, Peters knows drivers-turned-pimps who've gone back to trucking. After a seven-month investigation, The Dallas Morning News reported that the inadequate vetting of drivers was one of the biggest problems facing the trucking industry. By law, trucking companies are required to ask prospective drivers how many times they've been in an accident, the number of traffic tickets they have and their last three years of employment, but they are not required to do a criminal background check.

One night Peters introduced me to a driver-turned-pimp called Ced, who we found on a road behind the truck stop. He was working the area with a girl named Kitty Kat, who stood leaning against Ced's convertible as we talked. Kitty Kat was only 36, but already one of her teeth had gone gray.

Girls were just a way to get in the truck, Ced said. The goal was to get the driver to the point where he'd spent all his money on crack or whores. "Then he starts selling his tires, selling his freight, selling his gas to other drivers. They sell fridges, whatever they are carrying."

"Anything to support a habit," Peters interjected. "Once it's stripped—of its seats, of its radio, of everything—they'll drop it somewhere and report it stolen."

Like every other big city in America, Dallas has a vast underground network for stolen merchandise. Most of it ends up in the places you'd suspect: eBay, flea markets, bazaars, fly-by-night mom-and-pop stores. Peters once recovered a stolen load of toilet paper from an Oak Cliff dollar store that is still in business. In 2003, Dallas police officers discovered that a load of Best Buy appliances stolen by a trucker from a Grand Prairie warehouse was being sold out of a house in Richardson.

"Scum talk to scum" is the way Peters explains how stolen products find their way into the black market. "They have their connections just like you do. Business is business."

That explains how word recently got out that a trucker in Dallas was selling gas to other drivers on a stolen credit card. Over a two-week period, selling diesel fuel for cash at a buck a gallon, the trucker put upward of $200,000 on the card.

In March 2004, Dallas police, working with the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force, got word from an informant that a load of stolen cell phones was going to a warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard. Police executed a search warrant and found the warehouse was stacked to the rafters with stolen goods, including a trailer half-full of Maytag appliances, boxes and boxes of cheap electronics and about 50 motorized scooters. The owners of the warehouse were suspected of buying other stolen merchandise as well and fencing it to locally owned stores.

Crimes such as these represent the highest level of cargo theft, and they are above Peters' pay scale. The gas theft, for example, was more than a crime of opportunity. The credit card belonged to a trucking company. The suspect in the case had someone inside the company who could change the PIN on the card each time it reached its limit.

These sorts of cases often fall to agencies such as the FBI or the Secret Service, which investigated the gas case. In Dallas, there is no cargo theft task force, which melds the efforts of the FBI and city police to take down cargo gangs. Instead, there is one detective assigned to cargo theft—David Wallace—and he is the only officer in town who works cargo heists that involve organized crime. Walt West, who heads the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force and regularly works cargo theft cases (most of which end up in Dallas), said organized cargo gangs that operate in the area almost always come from out of town.

In the next few months, Wallace plans to file cases against several of these gangs, but he was reluctant to talk about any of them for this story, worrying he might spoil an open investigation. He did say that one case involved the heist of Maytag appliances from a facility in Farmers Branch. Another, which has already resulted in one conviction, involved a truck driver who stole 3,000 Samsung cell phones.

Proving a load of cell phones is stolen is one thing—each phone is marked with a serial number—but there is no way to prove a load of toilet paper or cereal is stolen unless it's still on the crate it was originally shipped on. There's also no way to prove the warehouse storing it knew it was stolen when they bought it.

Stolen cargo typically changes hands multiple times before it ends up in a warehouse. A private security firm investigating a cargo heist in Houston determined that the cargo changed hands 15 times within a three-day period. Ultimately, a legitimate business bought it.

Cops also say carriers are reluctant to prosecute drivers who are in on the heist because, as Peters puts it, "they don't want word to get out that they hire crackhead drivers.

"Once the freight's recovered, the owner's happy, the insurance company's happy, and that's pretty much it," Peters says.

Crooks have been stealing booty since it was strapped to camels—and probably long before that too—so it's unlikely that cargo theft will be stopped anytime soon. Private security consultants say adding the crime to the FBI's UCR program will make a huge difference. Police work is driven by these stats, which track all major crimes. They gauge the safety of a city. They determine the effectiveness of a police chief. And once cities realize how huge cargo theft is, experts say, they will be more likely to put additional cops on it. Still, most big-city police departments are understaffed as it is, and it's hard to see a department pulling detectives from narcotics or vice to chase after stolen truckloads of perfume, especially considering that cargo theft is typically a nonviolent crime in the United States.

So private carriers are coming up with solutions of their own, as are trade groups representing the industries that are most often ripped off. High-tech firms from around the country, for example, have formed a security alliance, the Technology Asset Protection Association, that tracks where thefts of electronics most often occur. They also share tips on the best ways to avoid the loss of freight to thieves.

Dan Purtell is regularly hired by companies from around the world to map out logistics. He will recommend carriers that are known for their safety. Big carriers, he says, carefully check the criminal records of their drivers. They also instruct their drivers on the best ways to avoid cargo theft. Drivers carrying a high-value load, for example, drive in teams so that the truck never has to stop. When one driver tires, the other one takes over.

In some cases, Purtell hires security escorts, both covert and overt, to follow high-value loads. He also advises his clients which airports are safest to fly in (DFW gets high marks, he says) and which cities they should avoid altogether (Atlanta is one, he says).

Carriers have also become more sophisticated in the technology they use. Most big carriers equip their tractors and trailers with hidden GPS tracking systems. Others use "smart containers" which are equipped to detect any changes in the temperature of the container, or whether a door has been opened.

"If a trailer is going from Los Angeles to St. Louis, they can ask, 'Why was that trailer opened in Phoenix?' It's great technology for cargo theft, and it's great technology for counter-terrorism."

In the last year, Purtell says, there has been a global rise in cargo theft. He attributes this to the opening of new markets in places such as Africa, Asia and South America. "We've been selling to the safe world, and now we're selling to the dangerous world."

Experts such as Purtell agree that in the United States there is a need for more cargo theft task forces that are specially trained to deal with the problem. The key to taking down cargo gangs, he says, is intelligence. And that only comes when police departments from across the country work together.

He's not so sure that Dallas needs a cargo theft task force, however. As bad as the problem is here, it's worse in other places that are having to fight to keep their task forces in existence.

Detective Wallace may not agree. More and more trucks pass through Dallas each day and, with them, so do more and more cargo thieves.

"It's all I work on," Wallace says. "And I'm completely snowed under."


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