Lawless Roads.

Position:Truck hijackings common in Mexico

Mexican truckers fight roadside bandits at every turn.

AFTER LOSING TWO COSTLY TRUCKLOADS OF CALIFORNIA ALMONDS AND one of Norwegian cod to marauders, Adolfo Juarez knew it was time to fight back. So, the businessman from Mexico City began hiring security guards to escort his goods from the Veracruz coast and the Texas border to their final destination in the stores and markets of the capital.

"You have to adapt to the circumstances," says the owner of the import business Encuentro S.A. de C.V "If circumstances say you need more protection, then you should get more."

On Mexico's roads, robberies of merchandise have grown almost as common as gaping potholes. Organized bands of thieves steal hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods each year, spawning a hostile climate for entrepreneurs, truckers and insurers alike.

The National Cargo Transport Chamber (Canacar), an organization comprising some 180,000 truck owners, says an average of 800 trucks are reported hijacked every year at a loss of US$253 million. That's bad news for a country where 90% of all goods are transported by truck.

The vast majority of robberies, however, go unreported, officials say. In a few rural areas like Fib de Caballo, Guerrero, local militias are even administering their own justice: They hang hijackers.

The states of Queretaro, Michoacan, Puebla, San Luis Potosi and Sinaloa are hotspots for robberies. But the roads leading into sprawling, poverty-plagued Mexico City form the frenetic stage where most thefts of cargo occur, says the transport Chamber's Vice President Manuel Gomez. "Eighty to 90% (of robberies) happen in Mexico City and the surrounding metropolitan area," he says. Stealing and dealing. While no product is safe, meats, wines, coffee, canned goods, electronics and clothes are among the most attractive targets for raiders. Such items get consumed quickly or are absorbed without much notice into the bustling tianguis, or markets, of Mexico City and other urban areas.

The hijackers are well-armed and highly organized, with brisk distribution networks to fence the cargo. "It's not easy to hijack a truck and dispose of 25 tons of whatever product it is." Gomez says. "These are huge chains of illegal distribution."

Fingers point in different directions over exactly who the plunderers are, and who's tipping them off to oncoming freights. Some see the hand of corrupt lawmen at work, particularly because investigations into thefts rarely yield fruit...

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