SANTIAGO, Chile – Dwight Johnson received a simple explanation from police why his car was stolen from outside his home in Santiago’s Ñuñoa neighborhood on the afternoon of March 11: Thieves needed a vehicle to perpetrate a crime or for a joyride.
Police found his car, which was littered with food, clothing and a toothbrush, the next day.
What happened to Johnson is quite common in the Andean nation, where 78% of the about 36,000 cars stolen annually are recovered by the Carabineros de Chile police force.
But the percentage of recovered vehicles could rise even higher.
The Carabineros, together with the Ministry of the Interior’s Under Secretary for Crime Prevention, announced on May 4 the use of the License Plate Automatic Scan System, a stolen car detection system being installed in police cars in Tarapacá, Antofagasta and the metropolitan region of Santiago.
The system will inform law enforcement agents in a matter of seconds of the make, model, color, year and legal status of all vehicles within its coverage area.
This technology increases police officers’ reaction times when the system spots a stolen car, said Commander Raúl Agurto of the 30th Precinct of Radio Patrolling and Police Intervention in Santiago.
“Before, if the officer was on patrol and spotted a vehicle with the characteristics of one that was reported stolen, the police officer would pick up his radio and check it out,” he said. “This would take a few minutes and [only] then could he start the process of pursuing the stolen vehicle.”
Once the system reads a license plate, it automatically verifies it against a database containing vehicles that have been reported stolen or used in a crime.
Vehicles are stolen so they can be used to commit crimes, sold on the international black market or locally for parts, or simply because thieves want to go for a joyride, according to the Under Secretary for Crime Prevention.
The system already has paid dividends, as it has led to the recovery of 15 stolen vehicles in the three regions where it’s being used. Officials have no timetable for when the system will be used nationwide, but they expect to end 2012 with 134 systems installed in areas with the highest rate of stolen cars.
The system is complemented by the Carabineros’ website where residents can enter any license plate and learn whether the vehicle has been reported stolen.
The program is also being used to prevent stolen cars from leaving the country, as plans are under way to have all patrol cars in the northern cities of Iquique and Antofagasta equipped with a system.
“In some of our neighboring countries it’s easier to hide these automobiles by blending them in,” Agurto said.
Officials are confident the scanners will prevent situations similar to what happened during the first week of June in the region of Taracapá, where police detained 20 Bolivians and four Peruvians in connection with an attempt to smuggle 40 cars from the Chilean city of Colchane through a makeshift road into Bolivia.
A few days earlier, the Iquique Public Attorney’s Office and the Section of Vehicle Search dismantled a four-man ring that was allegedly stealing cars in the cities of Iquique and Alto Hospicio and hiding them in the La Huayca area before smuggling them into Bolivia in exchange for drugs.
“In general, they’re isolated individuals but in some cases there are organizations that split up their tasks,” said Cristóbal Lira, the Interior Ministry’s under secretary for crime prevention. “That way, they have groups that steal, others that dismantle, others that sell the parts and others that create fraudulent registrations.”