Former Houston Oilers football player Alonzo Highsmith has wondered for almost a decade what happened to his fully-loaded Ford F-250 truck after it was stolen from a Houston restaurant parking lot in 1995.
Turns out it ended up a lot farther away than he ever imagined: It's in Guatemala.
Houston police found the Ford, along with more than 3,200 stolen vehicles most from Texas, California and Florida by tracing vehicle identification numbers through a Guatemalan database.
"I was hoping that it would be found, but as the weeks and months went by I thought, 'Well, that is the end of this truck.' I was like a grieving parent," said Highsmith, who had financed the $30,000 truck just weeks before it was stolen.
Highsmith, now a scout for the Green Bay Packers, learned recently from The Associated Press the whereabouts of his truck and that Guatemalan authorities are now trying to recover it.
Through database work, Houston police want to stem the flow of an estimated 200,000 U.S. vehicles that vanish south of the border each year. Comparing databases has proved useful because thieves don't always change vehicle identification numbers, said Houston Police Sgt. T.J. Salazar, the city's primary contact with Guatemalan authorities.
"The NAFTA freeway makes it so easy and inexpensive for them to just steal the car and drive it down from Houston to Guatemala," said Lt. Victor Rodriguez of Houston's auto theft division. "They can do it for $100 in gas, and there are very few checks.
" It is suspected that many of the vehicles end up in Mexico. Others make it farther south.
Gaining access to Guatemala's database took time, communication and lots of tedious work, Salazar said. It could be even more challenging in countries where paper files and typewriters are still used, he said.
"No country really checks its registrations against another country's stolen vehicles," said Rodriguez, who estimates vehicle theft generates $8 billion a year. He's in Washington, D.C., working for a year with the FBI to promote and expand his department's efforts to other countries.
Central American countries and Mexico "are beginning to see the totality of the problem," said Ralph Lumpkin, border operations director of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
"They see the theft problem as being an economic drain on them as well," Lumpkin said.
It's also damaging for insurance companies, such as Cleveland-based Progressive, which joined the tracking effort, donating everything from computers to stolen vehicles recovered by Guatemalan police.
Stephen Braunholz, a Progressive investigator, said Houston police helped his company find 17 stolen vehicles in Guatemala worth about $188,000. The company estimates it could have $1.3 million worth of vehicles in the country.
Getting vehicles back is a difficult task, requiring time, money and assorted international hurdles.
For example, it has taken more than a year and a half to get a Toyota Camry, found in the Dominican Republic within 45 days of being stolen, onto a cargo ship, Braunholz said. "It typifies the issue," he said.
"We have probably lost $10,000 to $15,000 in value just for it having sit over there for a year and a half. When it comes back here, we probably won't get but half price.