Pinatas On 18 Wheels

It's happening all too often in Mexico: A trailer-rig packed with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of imported U.S. merchandise is pulled over by armed men claiming to be police for a "routine" cargo inspection. The "police" then throw the driver into the trunk of a waiting car. While they drive him around for a couple of hours, accomplices steal the cargo and, sometimes, the truck.

Shippers say truck hijackings in Mexico have skyrocketed since devaluation of the peso last December triggered an economic crisis. This surge in highway crime is a big problem for business because 85% of the trade between the U.S. and Mexico is carried by truck--and traffic is way up, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Mexican police say 270 truck hijackings were reported on federal highways alone in 1994, and there were many more on state and local roadways. An estimated several hundred million dollars' worth of goods were lost. "If hijackings continue, they are going to jeopardize the successful entry of some companies into the Mexican market," says John Rodriguez, Levi Strauss & Co.'s security chief for the Western U.S. and Mexico.

Faced with big losses, many companies are beefing up security at their Mexican operations. Sears de Mexico, which has 47 retail stores across the country, brought in former FBI agent James R. Sutton last September to be its security chief. Last year, Sears suffered 49 truck hijackings, losing merchandise worth more than $2 million. In one ill-starred week, Sears lost three trucks to bandits posing as policemen. "We get the double whammy--not only are we targeted when we bring in goods from the U.S., we also get hit when we distribute the merchandise to stores," Sutton says.

The robbers are particularly fond of blue jeans because they can sell them quickly at thriving thieves' markets. The highwaymen are also helping themselves to pricier items, such as CD players, TVs, and computers. Sutton and others say they suspect that crooked customs agents and drivers alert the bad guys to juicy targets.

Insurers are being hit hard. Bruce Healey, an assistant vice-president at insurance broker Marsh & McLennan in Mexico City, says the situation "is bordering on catastrophic." He has handled claims on three stolen shipments worth more than $1.8 million in the last three months. One brazen band of thieves ripped off a truckload of industrial kitchen equipment and then had the nerve to call the affected company to find out how to price the cargo. Shippers say that some insurers have doubled their rates. Others are balking at writing Mexican policies.

In the meantime, security experts are doing what they can to cut the risk of theft. Sutton has reduced hijackings to just two in the past two months through such measures as doing background checks on drivers and getting rid of those with criminal records and other black marks. He's also ordering drivers to take expensive but safer toll highways. Recently, Sutton eliminated the familiar Sears logo from the sides of many delivery trucks. "We found that the advertising value was just not worth the risk," he says.

"BIG BUSINESS." But the real key to stopping the hijackings is getting the police to do their jobs. There's widespread suspicion that the police are in cahoots with the hijackers. "The problem right now is a bad economic situation, poor law enforcement, and probably a lot of police involvement in the hijackings," says a U.S. official. "Hijacking has become big business."

But federal highway police chief Antonio Arizpe Mireles denies widespread police involvement. "I'm not saying the 3,000 men we have are incapable of committing a crime," he says. But such charges are unfair without concrete evidence, he maintains.

Sears and Levi Strauss are spearheading a corporate security lobby that has met with government officials, including the attorneys general for Mexico City and the state of Mexico, who promised to help. But security agents say high-level promises mean little if underpaid local law-enforcement officers find it more lucrative to skirt the law than enforce it.

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