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Push Is on to Stem Flood of Stolen Cars Crossing Mexican Border

April 11, 2001|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Concerned over the U.S. Customs Service's inability to fully use available technology to stop the alarming flow of stolen U.S. vehicles into Mexico, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has urged the Bush administration to beef up resources along the California border.

"The fact that Customs has the ability to identify vehicles wanted by law enforcement agencies as they are traveling on U.S. highways and does nothing to stop them is deplorable and unacceptable," Feinsten wrote in a letter March 8 to U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill. U.S. Customs is part of the Treasury Department.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates that 1.1 million vehicles worth $7 billion are stolen in the United States each year and that 200,000 of them are illegally exported.

Since mid-1999, border crossings at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Calexico in California have been equipped with license plate reader (LPR) technology that is able to automatically alert Custom officials if a vehicle reported stolen is attempting to cross from California into Mexico.

But lack of personnel and resources, a focus on drug interceptions and other problems, including safety concerns at the busy San Ysidro border station, have prevented border agents from fully using the system to stem the flow of stolen vehicles into Mexico, said Vince Bond, a Customs spokesman in San Diego.

Besides the lack of resources to continuously monitor LPR scans of stolen vehicles, agents also face the difficult task of attempting to safely stop a stolen vehicle crossing into Mexico.

Southbound vehicles leaving the United States at San Ysidro are not routinely stopped, except when special "outbound enforcement operations" are being conducted by Customs. During these random, unannounced operations, Customs and local law enforcement "choke four or five lanes just north of the Mexican border down to two lanes," Bond said.

But unless slowed by one of these operations, southbound vehicles typically pass by the license plate reader cameras near the border at 45 to 55 miles per hour, Bond said.

Stopping fast-moving vehicles near the border in a manner that is safe for the officers and others is difficult, he said. "Flatten the tires and the car veers off and crashes into another car. That's not a safe way."

The LPR system works by electronically recording the front and rear license plates of vehicles as they pass by the camera. The system scans the license number through a National Crime Information Center database and an alarm is set off when the system hits on the plate of a vehicle that has been reported stolen, or if the registered owner is a wanted felon.

Nabbing stolen vehicles coming from Mexico into the United States is where the LPR technology has been most effective, he said.

As many as 50,000 vehicles a day enter the U.S. through San Ysidro in a slow-moving stream.

'If a stolen vehicle goes to Mexico, very often it will come back [across the border]," Bond said. "That's when and where we are prepared to take action."

Feinstein reported in a letter to Gov. Gray Davis that the California Highway Patrol's Mexican liaison unit was responsible for recovering 2,700 stolen cars in Mexico last year.

It's no secret that stopping the flow of narcotics into the U.S. is one of the highest priorities along the California-Mexican border.

But if a proposed federal increase in financing for the Customs Service is adopted, more manpower and resources could be made available along the border. That could mean that more attention will be paid to the stolen vehicle problem.

Meanwhile, Feinstein, who plans to meet with officials of U.S. Customs, the CHP, Immigration and Naturalization Service and local law enforcement agencies on April 17, said there needs to be cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities in snaring stolen vehicles before they make it across the border.

"This situation sends the wrong message to all law-abiding persons of both the United States and Mexico," she wrote in her letter to the governor. "Steps must be taken by both the U.S. and Mexico to ensure that our respective borders do not provide a safe haven for car thieves and other criminals."

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not phone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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