The speeding cars pulled alongside a semi-truck, boxed it in and forced it to a halt. Then the robbers, firing AK-47s, hijacked its cargo and made their getaway.
It seems like something out of Hollywood, but it is happening on a daily basis on Mexico’s highways.
The mounting dangers on the road have fueled a booming new business as the trucking industry seeks to fight back: Welcome to the world of armored and bulletproof tractor-trailers.
Jorge Coronel is one of those trying to stop these highway robberies, which have more than doubled in Mexico since 2015 to more than 30 each day, according to figures from the trucking industry and the government.
Coronel runs a company that specializes in transporting high-value cargo such as electronics, appliances, pharmaceuticals and luxury clothes.
Many insurance companies operating in Mexico will no longer protect such shipments unless they are transported in vehicles capable of withstanding assault rifle fire.
“It’s a growing niche,” Coronel told reporters. “It’s expensive. It’s very expensive, but insurance companies are demanding armored equipment for shipments worth more than a certain amount.”
Mexico is caught in the seemingly never-ending spiral of violent crime driven by its powerful drug cartels and other organized gangs.
First, the criminals branched out into fuel theft, which has cost state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos billions of dollars. Now, they are plaguing the country’s highways.
Mexican police received 11,425 reports of armed robberies of cargo vehicles in 2017 — or an average of more than 31 per day.
Last year, there were 11,062 reports from January to November — 33 per day.
To defend against the scourge, armored truck companies are coating tractor-trailers in steel and putting bulletproof glass in the windows.
It costs about 550,000 Mexican pesos (US$28,822) to equip a semi-truck to withstand AK-47 fire.
However, for many shipping companies, there is little choice. A single high-value shipment can be worth nearly US$500,000.
The trucking industry has estimated that it is losing US$4.6 billion per year because of violent crime.
Coronel has experienced the consequences firsthand.
In 2017, one of his company’s trucks was transporting a load of clothing when it lost contact with its escort near Ecatepec, a dangerous area outside Mexico City.
His team used remote control technology to bring the semi to a stop. As the robbers threatened the driver, the client shipping the merchandise decided to take no chances.
The client told him to “hand over the cargo and not put the driver at risk,” he said.
Attacks are getting more sophisticated and also more violent, said Daniel Portugal, who runs armoring company Diamond Glass.
“These days, they use cars in front to block the road and then they pull up on both sides. They don’t even try to damage the semi-truck, they go straight for the driver,” he said.
An industry that once focused mostly on armored trucks and VIP cars has had to adapt to new demand for the bulletproof semis.
For Esteban Hernandez, head of the Mexican Association of Armored Automakers, the industry is locked in a technological race with the criminals.
“The trucks have GPS devices that send their location in case of an unplanned stop, but the criminals have their own devices to jam the GPS,” Hernandez said.
“Their modus operandi is to climb the steps and enter the truck, so we developed a mechanism to retract the steps inside the vehicle when the driver isn’t using them,” he said.
Mexican trucking firms spend an estimated 6 percent of their revenues on security, versus about 0.5 percent worldwide, industry figures showed.
Companies are increasingly telling their drivers that they are safer inside their trucks in the event of a robbery.
“We give them training so they’ll trust the truck. The most important thing is not to get out of the vehicle,” Diamond Glass special services director Rigoberto Sierra said.
“If you’re inside the truck and it gets hit by a bullet, you might have your doubts, but we need our drivers to hold on tight and say: ‘I’m not budging,’” he said.
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