In 2013, Ecuador lost around $22 million and over 7,000 vehicles to car theft, a lucrative international trade that connects street level thieves to transnational organized crime groups.
According to official statistics, 7,478 automobiles were reported stolen in Ecuador last year, 2,695 of which were later recovered.
The trade is run by international “mafias,” reported El Comercio, who, according to one prosecutor cited, find Ecuador an attractive destination for stolen vehicles because of its dollarized economy.
Police have reported the presence of criminal groups dedicated to the theft and transnational trafficking of cars in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.
Former Ecuadorean police investigator Segundo Pacha said the lowest link in the chain — the person in charge of stealing a car — receives a $500 cut. Those responsible for moving the car across borders then “clone” the vehicle, or change its characteristics to match those of a vehicle in legal circulation. The networks in charge of the trade make profits close to those of the original price of the vehicle, said Pacha.
Officials have identified the Ecuador-Colombia border as particularly vulnerable to car trafficking, with criminals using secondary and tertiary roads, and also crossing by river into Colombia. In one case last year, 49 Ecuadorean vehicles were discovered in the Colombian municipality of Guacari, near the city of Cali.
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Networks of this type can be found across the region. A similar transnational ring to those discussed — which trafficked stolen vehicles from throughout southern Colombia into Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile — was broken up in Cali, Colombia last year.
Like Ecuador, Bolivia is another important destination country for these stolen vehicles, due in part to an amnesty law allowing owners to legalize unregistered vehicles for a fee.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ecuador
Stolen vehicles are not only re-sold to unsuspecting buyers, they also often fall into the service of criminal groups, who may require an untraceable vehicle for anything from drug transport to carrying out assassinations. According to El Comercio, investigators have found stolen all-terrain vehicles are sold to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There have also been reports of Brazilian cars stolen and exchanged for drugs and weapons in Bolivia and Paraguay.
Sometimes the connections between drug trafficking and car theft are even closer: Pablo Escobar famously started as a car thief. More recently, Texis Cartel leader and drug trafficker Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias “El Burro,” was arrested last July on car theft charges.
Car theft is a highly lucrative business, of which the estimated profits from Ecuador’s trade represent just a small percentage. International police body Interpol values the global trade at $19 billion annually, with seven million automobiles registered stolen in 2013. However, Mexico’s vehicle protection agency has claimed the trade is worth $11 billion a year in that country alone.