Mexican truckers fight highway robbery with armored semis

Mexico City (AFP) - The speeding cars pull alongside a semi-truck, box it in and force it to a halt. Then the robbers, firing AK-47s, hijack its cargo and make their getaway.

It seems like something out of Hollywood, but it is happening on a daily basis on Mexico's highways.

And 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 bullet-proof 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 a 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 AFP.

"It's expensive. It's very expensive. But insurance companies are demanding armored equipment for shipments worth more than a certain amount."

- 'Hand over your cargo' -

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 Pemex 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 a day.

In 2018, there were 11,062 reports from January to November -- 33 a day.

To defend against the scourge, armored truck companies are coating tractor trailers in steel and putting bullet-proof glass in the windows.

It costs around 550,000 pesos ($27,000) to equip a semi-truck to withstand AK-47 fire.

But for many shipping companies, there is little choice. A single high-value shipment can be worth nearly half a million dollars.

The trucking industry estimates it is losing $4.6 billion a 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, in 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, according to 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.

- Trust the truck -

An industry that once focused mostly on armored trucks and VIP cars has had to adapt to new demand for the bullet-proof 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 told AFP.

"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."

Mexican trucking firms spend an estimated six percent of their revenues on security, versus about 0.5 percent worldwide, according to industry figures.

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," said Rigoberto Sierra, of Diamond Glass.

"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.'"