In a throwback to the Wild West, freight trains thundering through this parched valley are being swarmed by bandits who plunder their cargoes, then flee back across the Mexican border - which, in some places, is only 10 paces from the tracks.
The thieves stage their raids from a nearby squatters camp, a cluster of cardboard and wood shanties where 40,000 people live without running water, sewers or law enforcement.
It is known as Colonia Anapra. But to Mexican authorities, it is “La Boca de Lobo” - “the wolf’s mouth.”
In what has become a disturbing routine, the well-organized team of about 60 armed bandits trips a train’s brake system, pitches freight ranging from television sets to tennis shoes overboard, then hauls the loot across the border to hired help in cars and trucks.
The bandits have tried to disable trains towing as many as 100 cars by pulling spikes from the tracks, heaping scrap metal on the rails or jamming switch boxes with rocks. They even have slathered the green lenses of signal lights with red paint to confuse engineers.
“In five to 10 minutes, they can stop a train, break into the rail cars and toss the goods out,” said Southern Pacific Railroad police Capt. Tom Monsen. “Once they’re over the border, it’s Ollie Ollie Oxen Free.”
Last year, nearly 100 Southern Pacific trains - all ferrying freight between Los Angeles and New Orleans - were robbed here in New Mexico. With more than $1 million in cargo stolen, the Sunland Park region ranks third behind the Los Angeles and Chicago areas in train theft, rail officials say.
In April, the heists took an ominous turn when 30 robbers shot at authorities who roared up on both sides of the border. No one was injured in the incident which resulted in the arrests of eight men by Mexican authorities.
Train robbers plague nearly every rail line and yard in the nation. What is unusual about the problem here in New Mexico is that trains are being hit at the border and U.S. officials and rail police cannot chase the thieves into Mexico.
Authorities in both countries are casting about for solutions. But they won’t come easily given the poverty in the colonia, the reluctance of financially pressed Mexican police in nearby Juarez, Mexico, to patrol the area and a thicket of restrictions on U.S. enforcement in a place where the border is an invisible line in the desert.
Sunland Park authorities said the bandits recruit desperate youths from the camp, paying them $50 to $75 to help steal cargo, which then is fenced in New Mexico, Texas, Juarez and the Mexican interior.
Authorities who have watched the heists say the bandits typically dispatch advance teams to board trains that have stopped on sidetracks elsewhere to make way for trains traveling in the opposite direction. By the time a targeted train hits 70 mph, these scouts are perched precariously on rail car ledges only a few inches wide. They use bolt cutters to pry open containers in search of goods including computer screens, television sets, clock radios and expensive running shoes.
When a train rounds the bend at the colonia, the bandits tamper with its air hoses, triggering the emergency brakes. As the train rolls to a stop, dozens of helpers pour out of the village and rush the tracks wielding guns and ladders, crowbars and bolt cutters. Metal car doors pop open amid shouts of “Hurry! Hurry!” in Spanish.
During an assault, train crews are instructed to lock their compartment doors and wait for an all-clear by law enforcement officers, whose approach is spotted by the rooster tails of dust their vehicles raise on dirt roads.
By the time help arrives, the bandits are loading merchandise in cars and trucks parked on the Mexican side of the border or stashing the stuff under bushes to be retrieved later.
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