Car thefts increased 15 percent in Galveston County in 2017 as an international criminal gang made its way into the area from Houston, according to law officers battling auto crimes.
There were about 730 vehicle thefts in Galveston County in 2017, up from about 635 in 2016, said Lt. Hal Barrow, commander of the Galveston County Auto Crimes Task Force.
The thefts were part of a consistent statewide increase in recent years after steady decreases during the 1990s and early 2000s, and despite a growing population.
“Stolen vehicles end up as the nexus of all forms of criminal activity,” said Lt. Tommy Hansen with the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department. “All major criminal activity requires some form of transportation — whether it’s a robbery or a break-in.”
Task force officers have been particularly troubled by the arrival of the violent MS-13 gang, or Mara Salvatrucha.
“They’ll come down and case a dealership and then come back and steal a bunch of vehicles and leave,” Barrow said. “They’ve already hit three dealerships in this county.”
Often, the gang members identify the cars they want to steal ahead of time and advertise them on sites like Craigslist before they have actually stolen the car, said Kriss Garcia, an investigator with the task force.
“They’ll get fake titles and prey on people who pay for cars in cash,” said Gina Doolittle, an investigative analyst with the task force.
The gang’s arrival in Galveston County is new, but the group has already caused significant problems in neighboring Harris County.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in April 2017 announced a new operation to stop violent organized crime in the Houston area and provided $500,000 for anti-gang resources.
The move was meant to combat a 10 percent increase in Harris County’s violent crime rate in 2016, officials said.
During his announcement, Abbott highlighted issues caused by the MS-13 gang in particular, leading to the decision.
Harris County has the state’s highest gang membership, according to a Department of Public Safety report.
Members of the task force put some of the blame for the auto theft increase on the gang’s arrival, but said it was far from the only culprit.
“Auto crimes are a $1 billion per year business,” Hansen said. “And that number is relatively conservative — it doesn’t even include potential damage to a car.”
Vehicle thieves can run the gamut from criminal organizations like MS-13 to drug addicts looking to steal a car to buy drugs, officials said.
Galveston led the county with 276 auto thefts in 2017, while League City was a center for vehicle burglaries, officials said.
“That’s where the most people are,” Doolittle said. “There are also a lot of businesses along Interstate 45 in League City.”
Thieves look for unlocked doors and sometimes break windows while people are inside businesses shopping, Doolittle said.
While League City leads the county in car burglaries, there was actually a slight decline from about 650 in 2016 to 579 in 2017, data shows.
INVESTIGATING AUTO CRIMES
“Vehicle crime is absolutely on the rise,” Hansen said. “Every time someone brags about the state population growing, these people are all bringing cars. With the growth in Galveston County, it’s only common sense that vehicle crime would increase.”
The task force was created in 1991 as part of a statewide effort to combat the complicated and growing crime. More than 1,700 vehicles were reported stolen during its inaugural year; about 600 were reported in 2014.
But since about 2012, the number of cars stolen in Galveston County has steadily climbed, records show.
The task force investigates all aspects of auto crime in the county — from burglaries to stolen cars, Barrow said.
Despite the heavy workload, the county’s auto crimes task force is down to six investigators after losing two positions, Barrow said.
A big reason for that is because of the state’s funding mechanism for the project.
The Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Authority was created in 1991 to combat vehicle theft by issuing grants to police forces. Legislators later added auto burglaries to the authority’s responsibilities.
Today, auto crimes task forces funded by grants from the authority are responsible for investigating commercial auto thefts, stripping operations, carjacking and vehicle arsons.
The task force was created with a dedicated fund supplied by a $1 fee charged to automobile-owning Texans on their insurance payments. In 1997, however, legislators did away with the fund, meaning the authority was left to depend on general fund appropriations.
Despite the change, the state kept collecting the $1 fee, and even increased it to $2 in 2011.
More funding — half of every $2 collected — was promised to the authority when the state increased the fee, but the extra money never materialized, Hansen said.
Task force experts said they worry about affording new technology and pay increases if new funding isn’t added.