The Sunday Read: ‘The Great Freight-Train Heists of the 21st Century’
Of all the dozens of suspected thieves questioned by the detectives of the Train Burglary Task Force at the Los Angeles Police Department during the months they spent investigating the rise in theft from the city’s freight trains, one man stood out. What made him memorable wasn’t his criminality so much as his giddy enthusiasm for trespassing. That man, Victor Llamas, was a self-taught expert of the supply chain, a connoisseur of shipping containers. Even in custody, as the detectives interrogated him numerous times, after multiple arrests, in a windowless room in a police station in spring 2022, a kind of nostalgia would sweep over the man. “He said that was the best feeling he’d ever had, jumping on the train while it was moving,” Joe Chavez, who supervised the task force’s detectives, said. “It was euphoric for him.”Some 20 million containers move through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every year, including about 35 percent of all the imports into the United States from Asia. Once these steel boxes leave the relative security of a ship at port, they are loaded onto trains and trucks — and then things start disappearing. The Los Angeles basin is the country’s undisputed capital of cargo theft, the region with the most reported incidents of stuff stolen from trains and trucks and those interstitial spaces in the supply chain, like rail yards, warehouses, truck stops and parking lots.In the era of e-commerce, freight train robberies are going through a strange revival.