Auto thefts in Austin are up and police say it could be because of increased smuggling by Mexican Cartels. They steal the vehicle, take it across the border, and then use it in human and drug trafficking.
Big trucks, like extended cabs, are a prime target for thieves. They are often taken from the parking lot of retail stores or apartment complexes at night.
Austin Police say Monday morning they were led on a short pursuit after a vehicle was stolen from Fort Worth; it ended in a crash. We're told it happens all too often. Officers tell us pick-up trucks are often stolen and used for the smuggling of immigrants and narcotics.
"Many times we've seen the smuggling of what they call backpacking. They'll have recently smuggled immigrants carry backpack loads to either offset a debt or reduce their fee for being smuggled in," said Brent Mullinix, Austin Police Department.
It's a problem seen all over town because of the proximity to other big cities.
"There does seem to be a trend about where they're crossing and that would be around the Eagle Pass area, which historically has been run by the Zeta Cartel," said Brent Mullinix, Austin Police Department.
In January there were 215 stolen vehicles, that number jumped to over 1,400 in September. Drivers are urged to install a tracking device or use something as simple as a club to deter the crime.
"They specifically want to steal a truck to move people. It's a money making venture.
I haven't seen it branch out, they don't seem to be violent although anyone cornered could do anything," said Brent Mullinix, Austin Police Department.
The Travis County Sheriff's Office is also tackling the problem. They recovered three vehicles within the last month where some indications of smuggling was involved. Although the recovery rate is high, the condition of the vehicle is not always good.
"When someone steals a vehicle, there's bound to be some damage to it whether it be to the door locks, the ignition switch, things of that nature. Then if they modify it to continue their illegal activity, of course that damage is there too," said Roger Wade, Travis County Sheriff's Office.
Back seats are also removed to fit more immigrants inside, something authorities say can run thousands of dollars. Making arrests in these cases can prove to be difficult.
"You get a lead, you follow up, you learn who somebody is but that's where a lot of our investigations stall. When it comes to undocumented immigrants, it's almost impossible to find out who they really are. So to be able to follow up with an arrest warrant on someone that you knew committed a crime, is extremely difficult," said Brent Mullinix, Austin Police Department.
That doesn't mean thieves get away with the crime. A two year investigation involving APD, Round Rock PD, DPS and Homeland Security ended with a big bust in 2012.
More than 30 people were arrested on more than 70 federal and state charges ranging from truck thefts, engaging in organized criminal activity, human smuggling and money laundering.