Sky-high rates of car theft in São Paulo are fueled by an international car trafficking industry that reportedly funds Brazil's drug and weapons trades.

According to Brazil’s O Globo, figures recently released by the São Paulo Secretariat of Public Safety indicate that, on average, 583 vehicles are stolen daily in the state. The paper says this means that every two days, car thieves in São Paolo steal more automobiles than are produced in a local Volkswagen factory. Although the crime has been declining in recent years, the numbers are still alarming. Government statistics indicate that there were more than 169,300 car robberies last year, compared with fewer than 215,00 in 2001. Still, according to a recent report by the U.S. consultancy firm C.J. Driscoll Associates, Brazil's vehicle theft rate is four times higher than in the U.S., with rates comparable to Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela.

Car theft in São Paulo has become a highly institutionalized and sophisticated industry, involving a number of different actors, from the thieves and their lookouts all the way up to distributors and vendors. O Globo cites former Minister Jose Vicente da Silva Filho, who claims that many of these car theft networks extend to neighboring countries, such as Paraguay and Bolivia. As InSight Crime has reported, the latter country has even inadvertently fueled this process through a recent amnesty on stolen vehicles in the country.

Because of this law, da Silva Filho says, an increased number of Brazilian cars are circulating in Bolivia, usually luxury vehicles. According to him, many of them are exchanged for cocaine. “There is even an exchange rate for vehicles to drugs; a quality car is worth about 10 pounds of cocaine,” said da Silva Filho. In response, Brazilian officials gave the Bolivian government a list of 4,000 cars that they believed have been stolen and smuggled to Bolivia.

Many cars stolen in Brazil end up in Paraguay -- one U.S. Congress report noted the "booming" business of smuggling cars from Argentina and Brazil into Paraguay and then Bolivia. There have even been allegations of a car trafficking ring involving Paraguayan police that·targeted the Brazilian state of Parana, which borders on São Paulo, and sent cars over the border into the neighboring country. Cars are reportedly taken over Lake Itaipu, which sits on the border between the two countries, on makeshift boats. When they reach the Paraguayan border town they are exchanged for cash, weapons or drugs. The Congress report said that this was facilitated by the laxity of Paraguayan law, which allows illicitly obtained cars to be easily legalized.

Brazil's car theft industry is encouraged by the fact that tracking stolen cars requires a significant amount of investigation, and police in the country generally devote more of their resources to more violent crimes like homicide and rape. Indeed, the lack of public resources to combat this crime has become something of a hot button issue in Brazil in recent years, prompting the country’s National Traffic Council (Conselho Nacional de Transito - CONTRAN) to set a new regulation in 2007 that required all new vehicles to be equipped with anti-theft GPS tracking devices. This is set to come into effect by the end of 2011.

However, given the country's thousands of kilometers of porous international borders, and legislation in neigboring countries which encourages the trafficking of stolen vehicles, it may take more than Brazilian efforts alone to cut the incentives for São Paulo's car thieves.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king -- known as "El Patrón" -- was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

As it tends to happen in Honduras, the news began as a well-heeled rumor: Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the oldest of the three Rivera Maradiaga brothers still alive and leader of the feared and powerful Honduran drug trafficking group known as the Cachiros, had handed himself in to...

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption...

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

In the northwest corner of Guatemala, a little known criminal organization known as the "Huistas" dominates the underworld, in large part due its ties with businessmen, law enforcement officials and politicians.

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala is Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy.

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

On the morning of April 5, 1988, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros left his palatial Tegucigalpa estate for a jog. Matta Ballesteros was wanted for murder, drug trafficking and other crimes in several countries, but in Honduras he felt safe. He regularly hosted parties for high-level officials at...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Like any arm of the justice system, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) had its battles with elites who used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission...