San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hyundais a Favorite For Auto Theft Gangs

If you think Hyundais are a safe, lowrisk car to buy, think again.

In Costa Rica, it is the cheap car of choice for thieves who need a disposable vehicle to use in carjackings. Prosecutor Flor Sambrano said car-theft gangs often sacrifice stolen Hyundais, and sometimes Nissan Sentras, to get bigger prizes, such as newer luxury SUVs of any brand.

“Hyundais are the tool of choice of these gangs, which are responsible for the majority of the car thefts in Costa Rica, every day with greater violence,” said Sambrano, an official in the specialized car theft unit of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office. That unit has eight prosecutors who each average a caseload of 80.

Sambrano said car owners have to watch out for three different kinds of car theft here – descuido, bajonazo and cocherazo.

Descuido, or neglect, means the owner left his car parked on a public street and thieves took advantage of it. If these are prosecuted, it is usually classified as a lesser crime.

Bajonazo means carjacking, a tactic that involves the use of another car to cut off the target vehicle and the use of guns or knives to steal it.

Cocherazo is a non-moving carjacking, in which criminals wait for the owners to approach their car and then assault them, normally with weapons, and steal the car.

San José is the most likely place to have your car stolen, authorities said.“In San José, there is a lot of theft and carjacking,” Sambrano said. “San Sebastian, San Francisco de Los Rios, Escazú and Tibas are the worst,” he said of those other San José neighborhoods.

Sambrano said car thefts nationwide total between 150 and 250 per month. She said the gangs that control the illegal industry are highly organized, with a sophisticated division of labor. They are made up of  the thieves, the “receivers” who buy the stolen cars from the thieves, specialists who remove vehicle identification numbers, and the chop shops that often turn the stolen merchandise into a product sold at the local repair store.

Toyota 2.8-liter motors from pickup trucks are in high demand, she said.

In recent months, the prosecutor said, more carjacking victims are fighting back and shooting or killing carjackers. In January, a bodyguard stalked and killed a carjacker after shooting him in the back (TT, Feb. 8). But Sambrano said the gangs are adapting to the trend by wearing bulletproof jackets.

“Crime is getting more violent and more professional,” she said. “They have the mentality to kill or be killed.”

The prosecutor declined to name any of the gangs, saying they are often named after their leaders. Disclosing names could potentially harm ongoing investigations, which normally take at least a year to resolve.

“But I can tell you there are many, many, many gangs,” she said.

The National Insurance Institute (INS) declined to provide a list of car models most stolen in Costa Rica.


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