Mexican trucking companies are urging lawmakers to stiffen penalties against cargo robberies, with a group representing motor carriers saying the escalation of crime this year has turned much of the country’s highways into “no man’s land.”
The Cámara Nacional del Autotransporte de Carga (CANACAR), or National Chamber for Cargo Transporters, said Wednesday that by the end of the year it expects the number of highway freight robberies to top 2,400, a 37 percent increase over the figure for 2016. That followed a 60 percent increase, from 986 robberies, in 2015, to 1,590 in 2016, the organization said.
The organization urged legislators to make highway robbery a federal crime, with tough penalties, rather than the present classification of it as a “common” crime, with far weaker punishment.
The comments, made Wednesday in an open letter to President Enrique Pena Nieto and other federal officials and lawmakers, are the latest expression of concern at the impact on the freight industry of the country’s plague of drug war violence, organized crime, and other delinquency. Some ports have also faced crime waves from cargo robberies and efforts to use them as a gateway for drugs.
Past studies have estimated that cargo worth billions of dollars is lost annually, especially to hijackings, in which robbers often create obstacles for trucks, forcing the driver to stop and allowing thieves to either grab control of the vehicle or force the driver to divert cargo to another site. In response, some shippers have turned to rail to transport freight, believing it is more secure because trains are harder to rob and rail theft is a federal crime.
CANACAR’s statement, while not the first time the organization has raised the issue, comes as Mexico and the United States prepare to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the outcome of which could have a dramatic effect on the economies of both countries.
Jorge Molina, a Mexico City-based political analyst, said CANACAR, the country’s oldest and largest freight transportation organization, and other groups, have complained about highway theft for a decade. CANACAR said earlier this year that its members faced a 200 percent increase in insurance cost owing to the rising tide of robberies, Molina said.
“The truth is that federal authorities have done very little about it,” Molina said. He added that there is a “very good chance” that lawmakers will pass legislation to make it a federal crime. One pending law, for example, would make highway robbery punishable by a sentence of seven to 15 years in prison, he said, adding that even that may not have an impact unless there is a serious effort to enforce the law.
Molina said the issue could surface in the NAFTA negotiations because it provides a “major argument for the US Teamsters [Union] and friends against opening up the North American freight market, since at this point Mexico has no way to assure the United States and Canada that it is protecting its highways.”
CANACAR said most of the robberies take place in the center of Mexico, with especially high frequency in the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, both of which are just outside of Mexico City. The “unstoppable climb” in the figures is the action of “organized criminal groups that have diversified their operations to other criminal activities, finding in road transport an appropriate target for resources,” CANACAR said in the letter.
“Unfortunately, we can say that today our roads have become 'no man's land,'” the letter said.
The organization criticized the government for its “passive attitude” in dealing with the problem, saying its lack of coordination in combating the problem had favored “the illegal movements and actions of criminals.”
Fernando Barrenechea, owner of Grupo Barco, a Michoacán customs broker, said the biggest impact of the robbery surge on his customers has been in the increase of insurance costs. Otherwise, customers are not so affected by the robberies because they send perishable goods, which are less likely to be stolen, on toll roads, while most robberies are on state highways, he said.
“Valuables like TV screens, liquor, [and] cigarettes are the most risky shipments,” he said.