By on October 21, 2021

Last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a pledge to legalize millions of vehicles being illegally imported from the United States. While it sounds like a phenomenal way to help the nation to contend with product shortages that are driving up vehicle prices around the globe, all of the cars had been smuggled previously and many were presumed to have been stolen.

This has created a lot of tension. Despite there being evidence that these vehicles frequently end up becoming workhorses for criminal cartels, illegally imported beaters also provide a cheap alternative to poorer residents right when automotive prices (new and used) have started to disconnect from reality. Times are tough and destitute families aren’t going to care where a car comes from when it’s the only one they can afford. So López Obrador has officially launched a new regularization program designed to bring these automobiles into the fold. 

“We are going to legalize all of them, we are going to give them a permit, we are going to recognize them as owners of the vehicle,” López Obrador said ahead of signing the amnesty agreement. “Because there are a lot of people who use these cars because they don’t have the money to buy a new car, and with these cars they take their children to school and carry out their activities.”

Importing cars into Mexico has always been legal, provided it meets the latest regulatory standards and individuals pay the necessary fees. But there are millions of automobiles currently operating within the country that were snuck in, most of which originated in the United States. Known as “chocolate cars,” they’ve been the preferred steed for organized crime. But they also make their way into the hands of regular people as an affordable alternative to secondhand goods found on dealer lots. Due to taxes and fees, smuggled vehicles can be found at roughly half the price as a government-certified secondhand jalopy.

The amnesty arrangement would allow these illegal imports to be registered in Mexico after paying a fee of 2,500 pesos ($123 USD). Though local authorities have to come up with their own unique strategies to encourage those in possession of chocolate cars to comply. For now, the plan is being limited to states that border the U.S. (Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Baja California) since they’re the ones presumed to contain the largest number of illegal imports. Baja alone is estimated to have 500,000 cars, despite having a population of less than 4 million.

President López Obrador stated that the plan could be used to help El Norte’s six municipalities fund roadway repairs with tens of billions of pesos flooding into states that saw health compliance numbers. But not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Guillermo Rosales Zárate, the Director of Mexico’s Association of Automotive Distributors, has claimed the strategy effectively rewards criminal behavior and could cut new vehicle sales by over 30 percent.

“It is a mistake to legalize smuggled vehicles,” he said. “It will have an impact on the economy, as well as create concerning environmental pollution and insecurity that threatens people’s lives.”

While the sales estimate sounds plausible, any claims that this will negatively impact the environment are absolutely ridiculous. It’s always obnoxious to see pollution tacked onto every argument. But it’s particularly nonsensical in a scenario where the end goal results in older autos staying around longer and there is a lessened need for new vehicle production. Distributors have been asking the government to stop people from smuggling vehicles into the country for years and are willing to make whatever claims are necessary to get the public on their side.

Guillermo Rosales Zárate later went on to call the measure a victory for organized crime.

However, he’s hardly alone in his outrage. Numerous officials have cited that automotive smuggling has become a major industry for cartels operating along the border. Some even operate legitimate businesses on both sides of the fence to help facilitate the process while also serving as fronts for human trafficking and drug running. Worse yet, these groups have become the de facto government in some areas and often bribe corrupted officials so they’ll turn a blind eye.

This really clouds the argument on what’s to be done. If cartels have amassed sufficient power along the border to avoid prosecution, then it becomes hard to argue for the continuation of policies that have resulted in black market automobiles and increased violent crime. You either have to enforce the law or attempt to normalize the grayer aspects of criminal organizations to a point that they’ll hopefully go legit. I cannot presume to know which strategy is best for Mexico but the hands-off approach certainly hasn’t been working — and I don’t just mean in Mexico.

One of the consequences of smuggling being so lucrative has resulted in elevated car crime and smaller inventories north of the border. American states closer to the Mexican line often see per-capita vehicle thefts at quadruple the frequency as those located along the Atlantic Ocean. While some of that has to do with their proximity to shipping containers waiting to shuttle stolen goods across the Pacific, vehicles being illegally imported into Mexico remain a significant factor. However, plenty of the vehicles being funneled southward are purchased legally from dealerships or through vehicle auctions (often as salvage titles).

Then there is the Mexican Employers Federation, which has suggested President López Obrador’s measures will ultimately load up Mexico with old, unsafe vehicles right when the automotive sector needs a boost. The nation’s new vehicle sales were down 20 percent over the first half of 2021 vs the same stretch of time in 2019.

Mexican media outlets have also been critical of the plan. But they don’t necessarily represent the people in possession of these cars, many of whom will probably be glad to ditch U.S. plates so they can formally register their vehicle. Still, much of the above holds little relevance when the Mexican government doesn’t seem to be in control of the border.

“We need to recognize that we don’t have control over the passage of these cars along the border,” Fidel Villanueva, the director of Anapromex, which defends the owners of illegally imported cars, told The Washington Post. “The Americans don’t want them, so they’ll keep coming, [good, nice and cheap.]”

Considering how much used vehicles are going for in the United States these days, it’s hard to claim we don’t want them. We just aren’t holding onto them and there’s not much being done about it.

[Image: Chess Ocampo/Shutterstock]

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29 Comments on “Mexico Gives Amnesty to Illegal American Cars...”

  • avatar

    A lady had her pickup truck stolen from our parking lot at work. Within 2 hours they had it on camera crossing into Mexico.

  • avatar

    Looks like Mexico needs to increase border security.

    Giving amnesty to stolen vehicles will just make the problem worse.

    I do agree with Mr. Posky that throwing in emissions compliance into the complaint is a red herring. Political correctness is alive and well nationally and internationally.

    • 0 avatar

      As someone who used to regularly cross the Baja-CA border via San Ysidro or Otay Mesa, you can tell how non-existent security border really is while heading southbound.
      Of course there are Mexican officials around that may pull a fraction of cars over but most of them just don’t. And when you’re pulled over you’re just asked about goods you may have purchased like TVs or anything that is still packaged, so they can charge you fees for.

      Personally, I’ve never been asked for my car’s paperwork when crossing to Mexico.

      And car smuggling is super easy, you can see the guys/girls standing on the sidewalk next to the border talking over the phone all day long looking to make $250-$500 for each car crossed. They just need a CA license and a car with valid plates and voila.

      • 0 avatar

        45 years ago I lived in Tijuana and commuted to NAS North Island at Coronado, CA. Going south into Mexico were checkpoints run by the San Diego Police checking cars going toward the Mexican Port of Entry. They’d catch a lot of stolen vehicles heading south until someone decided that this police checkpoint was somehow unjust and racist and the checkpoints were removed. Believe it or not, car theft in San Diego rose somewhat after…

        • 0 avatar

          In SF if you are low or no income you can steal anything you want from shops. It is legal. Stealing is good.

          • 0 avatar

            @ILO, preview of our future:


            (If I use theft proceeds to support adopted kittens, is it ok?)

          • 0 avatar

            @ToolGuy “The California Globe, founded by an associate of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner” tells me all I need to know about the honesty of that news source. LOL

          • 0 avatar

            @ToolGuy – In my town a grocery store in the downtown area is closing for the same reasons. It’s the most shoplifted store in their grocery chain. I rarely ever go their. The panhandlers at the door are very annoying.

            Our town being one of the larger municipalities in the region had a huge influx of wildfire refugees a few years ago. When the evacuation orders lifted everyone went home except the indigents. We now have a huge problem.
            I’ve been told that there is sufficient shelter space for them but to enter a shelter you need to follow the rules. They don’t want to do that so they’ve created a tent city behind the old city “works” yard and another small encampment between two old buildings. It’s killing the downtown core.
            There was a regionally “famous” hardware store in the downtown that I’d go to. The service was excellent and they quite literally had everything you might want. They were the “go to” for hard to find items. They closed after 100 plus years in service (not because of street people)I now have almost zero reason to go downtown.

          • 0 avatar

            @N8iveVA, yeah now it is Trump’s fault that shoplifting and other crime go unpunished in SF and other radical left wing cities. People votes matter. No one in SF voted for Trump or any other republican.

          • 0 avatar

            No, stealing is not legal. Nor is it good.
            Your post is, in the nicest of all possible terms, silly.

  • avatar

    Nice to see Mexico joining the US in rewarding criminal behavior s/

  • avatar

    Every time I drive to south TX I see the jalopy caravans. Usually it’s something like a clapped out minivan pulling a multi colored pickup with a wrecked sedan tied on behind that. Always headed south at 40 mph. There’s a thriving market for our leftover junk. I’m sure some of it doesn’t quite have the paperwork in order. Making it easy for hot cars to be legal in Mexico is just going to encourage more caravans.

    • 0 avatar

      Those cars could also be headed to Mexican junkyards.

      I’ve seen smugglers standing a few feet from the border talking on the phone all day long while making deals to drive the cars over to Mexico. They just cross by walking, pick the car from one of those near-to-border parking lots and drive them to MX. They just need a valid US license and the car’s title and they won’t be pulled over by a Mexican official because they won’t be able to prove the car is not his/her.

      Of course, if some of these cars were stolen a title shouldn’t be present, right? Maybe they fake those too

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen those, too. Like a well-worn Dodge Caravan pulling another Caravan, usually with some kind of tow bar or dolly. A lot of time they have paint marker markings on the class, like from a used car auction or insurance auction.

  • avatar

    Back around 2000, I was a researcher at the Univ of Arizona. We were conferring with Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales station about some technologies to help them screen more effectively/efficiently. They told us of a license plate reader project that they’d implemented. They read licenses and took photos of cars going in/out of Mexico. They found that a high proportion of the vehicles taken into Mexico that had been reported stolen were actually driven across by their owners (per the photos) and ostensibly abandoned. It seems that if the payments got to be too much to bear, many people would prefer to fraudulently report the car stolen than have it repossessed. Once in Mexico, the cars tended to not be found again.

    • 0 avatar

      “actually driven across by their owners”. The term “financial combustion” is one I’ve heard used. Torch your own home, vehicle etc. to collect insurance or to bail out on debt.

  • avatar

    Presumably, the USA could stop the flow of stolen vehicles dead in its tracks. Simply check vehicle registrations against driver’s licenses at the border crossing. A computer DMV search would take a few minutes per vehicle, and hardly any stolen cars would get through. Any cars in doubt (not stolen, but some kind of ID mismatch) could still be allowed through, but could be subject to a waiting period of a few hours and additional documentation.

    If we aren’t doing it, it just means we don’t care enough about the problem.

    • 0 avatar

      I mean, forging paper regs would be dead easy to do, and if you want them to do it electronically, you’ll need to give them 50 state access to motor vehicle databases. Which seems unwise to me.

      • 0 avatar

        Protecting personal privacy has a way of benefiting criminal activity.

      • 0 avatar

        I think Border Patrol already has access to that data, except where individual states have disputed it and blocked them from accessing it. Something about it being unfair to “undocumented” immigrants.

    • 0 avatar

      Who’s going to do the check, though? Mexican border authorities aren’t going to get access to the US state DMV info that would be required, and US state law enforcement doesn’t have much incentive to monitor who/what is *leaving* the country.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I know! We’ll pay Mexico to build a wall to keep American cars out. Oh, wait…

  • avatar

    “with these cars they take their children to school and carry out their activities”

    …including transporting kittens for adoption.

    (and Little League, as it turns out)

  • avatar

    The Wall is a good idea, but let’s not kid ourselves, there’s massive corruption on both sides. While you were sleeping in the ’80s/forward, the cartels have been busy legally living in the US, buying property, starting businesses, becoming citizens and most importantly, having cartel babies in the US. Their cartel ancestry/cousins might not pop up on FBI background checks.

  • avatar

    Mexico has been turning into Cuba except with ’90s cars and older. Around Y2K Mexico banned the normal/legal import of US used cars .
    They were mostly beaters and gross polluters so Mexico was basically our junkyard. Mexican officials had enough and were also figuring on boosting their own auto industry. They have allowed import of 10 year old US cars, but not older.
    Also allowed; US pickups, new to 20 years old.
    It’s created a huge glut of landlocked aging cars here plus old SUVs/CUVs/vans.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    With the chip shortage the USA is starting to turn into Cuba.

  • avatar

    Here in San Diego the US has its own “border” just before the entry into Mexico. This has license plate readers and is manned at random times..presumably to stop the trafficking of stolen vehicles.

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