Mexican bandits' great train robberies

Edward Helmore in Los Angeles reports on the rich pickings of raids across the US border
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The Independent Online
The train robbery, featured in a thousand Hollywood westerns, has made a comeback among the mesas and canyons of New Mexico.

Like the gun-slinging bandidos of the Old West, gangs of Mexicans have been crossing the US border to stop trains by disabling points, obstructing the tracks or tripping the emergency brakes. The plunder is the gold of the modern age: television sets, computers, VCRs, clothes and shoes. Afterwards the gangs haul their loot back over the border, leaving a trail of empty boxes in their wake.

In 1994 the Southern Pacific Lines Railroad reported 600 robberies, during which guards were shot at seven times. "They're very good. It's not just a bunch of peons," said Lieutenant Dale Bray of the railway police. "They are very organised and very structured."

The railway, which sometimes runs only 8ft from the border, is especially vulnerable in the one-and-half mile stretch near Sunland Park, New Mexico. Under the shadow of Mount Christo Rey, the trains are easy to hold up, but sometimes the bandits board the train earlier and simply dump the goods off as it runs along the border.

"A quick jump and they're gone over. That's why they like it here," a guard says ruefully. "If we catch them, it's usually just luck."

Residents of Sunland Park also complain of burglaries and say drug trafficking is widespread. "It has seriously blossomed in the last 20 years," said Dave Teague, a Border Patrol agent. "It's virtually open territory here," says the local police chief, Eduardo Medina.

In an effort to stop the robberies, the authorities have established a post to protect a vulnerable set of points. At Fort Anapra - little more than a shack surrounded by a wooden fence topped with razor wire - Southern Pacific guards stand watch 24 hours a day to try to curb the bandits. The company has also changed train schedules and improved signalling systems.

One of the main problems is that there is no delineated border between Mexico and the US at this point, and the company is now awaiting permission from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service to erect a 10ft fence between the line and Ciudad Juarez, a shanty town on the Mexican side.

Mike Furtney, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based railway company, will not say how much it is losing in the robberies, but concedes that they are more than just a nuisance. "I would say that it is akin to the banking industry and bank robberies," he said.

"They don't happen every day, and when they do they're a big concern. But no one would say it would threaten the overall banking industry."