Cross-Border Jeep Theft Gang Broken Up in San Diego

SAN DIEGO (CN) – Nine members of a Mexican motorcycle gang have been criminally charged with stealing more than 150 Jeep Wranglers worth $4.5 million and selling the vehicles and their parts across the border.

Only three of the nine members of the Tijuana-based Hooligans motorcycle gang are in federal custody. The rest are fugitives and are believed to be in Mexico, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The men are accused of using handheld electronic devices and stolen codes to disable security systems on the Jeeps, taking off with the vehicles in only a few minutes. They also are accused of stealing motorcycles from San Diego County.

“The joy ride is over for these Hooligans,” Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said.

According to the indictment, the gang members would target specific vehicles, get the Vehicle Identification Number and secret codes that allowed them to create duplicate keys for the Jeep. The preparation, which might take days, allowed the Hooligans to disable the alarm system and program the duplicate key using a handheld electronic device and drive away without being noticed.

Nearly all the Jeep thefts occurred in the middle of the night or early morning, and almost all of the vehicles were equipped with alarms, according to a search warrant.

The technologically advanced thefts left investigators stumped while Jeep Wrangler thefts skyrocketed in summer 2014, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Then a homeowner whose Jeep was parked in her driveway handed over surveillance footage from a security camera, which showed three men disabling the alarm and using a key and handheld device to turn on the engine.

Investigators then turned over a list of recently stolen vehicles in San Diego County to Chrysler to find out if duplicate keys had been requested for the stolen Jeeps. It turned out a duplicate key had been requested for nearly all of them, prosecutors said.

Nearly all the duplicate keys were requested through a dealership in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California. The duplicates were not requested by the Jeep owners, who were unaware the requests had been made.

When agents began to interrupt Jeep thefts and make arrests, they pinpointed the Hooligan gang as the culprits.

A snitch in the gang told prosecutors that only members of a “Dirty 30” group in the gang stole vehicles and sold drugs. Other members not involved in criminal operations worked to build up a positive reputation for the Hooligans in the community, according to the search warrant.

After scoping out vehicles to steal, the “transporters” would cross into San Diego using different ports of entry.

It’s far from the first time such cross-border theft rings have been discovered. Mexican police in border cities have long been suspected, and sometimes caught, sending juveniles across the border to steal cars the police pick out in advance, and take them to Mexico.

One longtime U.S. reporter in a border city told Courthouse News he has an uncle in a Mexican police force. Seeing him unexpectedly one day on this side of the border, he asked, “Tío, what are you doing here?”

His uncle told him, “Oh, I’ve come to see about some stolen cars.”

“Really? How’s that going?”

“Well,” his uncle said, “I’ve got mine picked out.”

Charged in San Diego with conspiracy to commit transportation of stolen vehicles in foreign commerce are Jimmy Martinez, Mario Echeverria-Ibarra, Alejandro Guzman, Narciso Zamora Banuelos, Adan Sanchez Aguirre, Salvador Castillo, and Sebastian Ponce, all of Tijuana; Henry Pulido of Imperial Beach; and Reynaldo Rodriguez of San Diego.

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