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Train robbery for Amazon packages? More common than you think

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 Victor Llamas memorable wasn’t his criminality so much as his giddy enthusiasm for trespassing. He 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 police-station room in the spring of 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, told me. “It was euphoric for him.”

According to detectives, Llamas divulged how he learned to decode the containers stacked on freight trains through his repeated break-ins and by Googling the placards, locking devices, logos and numbers on the containers, which often provided clues to the loot he might find inside. An upgraded lock was a sure sign of more valuable contents. Inside the containers — most of them were secured with metal locks about the size and shape of a corkscrew that easily succumbed to his bolt cutters or mechanized handsaw — the items were varied and plentiful: TVs, beer, clothing, makeup, shoes, electric bicycles, hard drives, tablets.

Llamas worked with Connie Arizmendi, his girlfriend at the time. After becoming aware of them, the detectives put a tracking device on the couple’s S.U.V. and followed them around Southern California. The couple would set up in a motel near the tracks somewhere out in the Inland Empire or farther south; they ranged as far as Barstow, more than 100 miles to the east. After nightfall, they would hit the trains and then often shuttle cargo back to their motel rooms for storage. By that point, Chavez, who is 58, had been at the L.A.P.D. for nearly 35 years, working homicides, drugs, gangs, auto thefts and robberies, and he had never heard anyone talk about his crimes as rapturously as Llamas. “He straight out told me, he goes, ‘Detective Chavez, I’m never going to stop doing it,’” Chavez says.

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. Cases of reported cargo theft in the United States have nearly doubled since 2019, according to CargoNet, a theft-focused subsidiary of Verisk, a multinational company that analyzes business risks, primarily for the insurance sector. On CargoNet’s map of cargo-theft hot spots, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Memphis show up as distinct, high-incident red blobs. But the biggest blob, a red oblong smear, stretches out over the Los Angeles valley like molten lava.

Freight trains are massive mechanical constructions, but because they’ve been on the landscape for so long, they tend to be part of the background, like hills. In Los Angeles, however, trains roared back into the public imagination in late November 2021, when a local NBC affiliate ran footage from a section of Union Pacific tracks strewed with thousands of ransacked boxes. The video included a man with bolt cutters climbing up onto moving cars and a reporter’s calls to the packages’ intended recipients, as well as their reactions to seeing their emptied-out boxes. “I’m honestly just disgusted in human behavior,” said a woman in Seattle who was waiting for a car seat for her unborn baby. It was like an IMAX-scale version of those now-ubiquitous security camera videos of porch pirates sneaking off with deliveries.

‘Detective Chavez, I’m never going to stop doing it.’

Soon videos of the trains were circulating all over; by January, the story had become international news and the images a kind of culture-war Rorschach test. When a photojournalist and helicopter cameraman for CBS Los Angeles posted a thread to Twitter featuring similar footage, tens of thousands of people retweeted and commented. Some viewers saw the videos as evidence of the absurdity of global e-commerce run amok; some even reveled at the return of an iconic American crime. One respondent posted a clip of Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Another quipped, “Who will cry for the Amazon packages?”

But other viewers saw the entire mess as illustrative of a kind of dystopian lawlessness they attributed to liberal cities gone rogue. “This breakdown of order is happening because the bedrock of civilized society, the rule of law, has been abandoned,” the editors of National Review wrote. “For Los Angeles district attorney George Gascón, a paradigm exemplar of today’s progressive prosecutors, this is literally the express-track redistribution of wealth.”

At the time, Union Pacific claimed that about 90 containers were being opened per day and that theft on their freight trains in the area was up some 160 percent from the previous year. About 80 guns were stolen from trains. In early 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom donned a pair of work gloves and picked up scattered boxes on the tracks himself. “What the hell is going on?” he asked the assembled television news crews.

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The Union Pacific Railroad tracks littered with debris.
The Union Pacific Railroad tracks in Los Angeles in January 2022, littered with debris left by a rash of package thefts from trains.Credit…Michael Christopher Brown for The New York Times

The Los Angeles Police Department scrambled to respond; Chavez and his crew of detectives were put on the case. The boxes on the tracks were cleaned up. And for the most part the story went quiet.

But under the placid surface of digital commerce, even as consumers continued to get almost all of their online orders delivered to their doors so seamlessly and quickly it felt vaguely like magic, the supply chain roiled, plagued by thieves, and things continued to go missing — whole trucks’ and train cars’ worth of things.

“Give me a call re your land pirates story.”

The text that popped up on my phone last fall was from the communications guy at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents more than 51,000 members. He connected me with Edward A. Hall, who in late 2022 won an upset election to become the union’s national president, after spending 28 years as an engineer for Union Pacific, first in El Paso, Texas, but mostly out of Tucson, Ariz. I wanted to know what it was like to be inside a train during a heist.

Up in the cab, Hall told me, he regularly passed stopped trains and saw people clambering up ladders or loading cargo into their trucks pulled up alongside the tracks. Sometimes he saw people breaking into moving trains too. He would call the rail police dispatcher and keep going. Those container doors, meanwhile, stayed open, he said, trailing boxes as the train rolled on. Hall saw all kinds of merchandise spread out across the tracks, including tires and televisions. Engineers don’t stop for this flotsam of global capitalism; they run over it. Once, near the Dragoon Mountains, in southeast Arizona, Hall drove a train through a desolate quarter-mile of track littered with hundreds of pairs of Nike sneakers. “Between L.A. and Tucson is where I know a lot of theft happens,” Hall said.

The most extreme type of modern train theft occurs when thieves cut the air-compression brake hoses that run between train cars, thereby triggering an emergency braking system. When that happens, the engineer stays in the cab and the conductor walks the length of the stopped train, trying to locate the source of the problem. (Thieves can also stop a train by decoupling some of its cars.) Of course, if a train is miles long, that walk takes a while. In the meantime, the pilferers unload.

Law-enforcement officials told me that it’s not uncommon for thieves to target specific cars full of electronics, say, or tires, in a way that suggests previous knowledge of their contents. Gary Rogers, a former Union Pacific law-enforcement agent, says that during his decades working throughout the West, he saw thieves coordinate their movements precisely; one of them would climb aboard a moving train and know just when and to what extent to cut into the air-compression hose. “The train would stop, and the guys would be there waiting to unload,” Rogers told me. It’s easy to imagine how frightening a heist might be for a train engineer and conductor, but in cases when the train has not been stopped, they often have no idea it’s even happening. Sometimes they won’t know for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles, until they arrive at their destination and discover looted cars.

Piracy is an age-old occupation, particularly prevalent in places and times when large gaps have separated the rich and the poor. But this modern-day resurgence in cargo theft stems in no small part from the extreme ways the internet has altered the buying and selling of things. When the United States Census Bureau began collecting data on e-commerce, in 1998, online sales amounted to some $5 billion. Now that figure is upward of $958 billion; e-commerce revenue is forecast to exceed $2.5 trillion by 2027.

The need to get packages to consumers quickly has reshaped the infrastructural landscape, changing the way freight moves around the world, through more warehouses, distribution centers, modes of transport, trucks, trains, planes, delivery drivers. This ever-quickening tangle has opened new vulnerabilities to be exploited by supply-chain thieves.

Many in the industry would prefer not to talk about theft. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway declined my interview requests. (They each, along with the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group representing major freight rail, provided written statements emphasizing their commitment to combating theft.) None of the parties involved — the rail companies, the truckers, the shippers, the warehouses, the insurance companies — are required to publicly disclose stolen freight, either.

On the website of Operation Boiling Point, which the Department of Homeland Security recently created to go after organized theft groups, the agency states that cargo theft accounts for between $15 billion and $35 billion in annual losses. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in a statement emailed to me, estimated that cargo-theft losses amounted to $1 billion nationally in 2021, but the agency acknowledged that that was an undercount. (An F.B.I. spokesperson also confirmed that the agency is working with the rail companies and deploying special agents from its Major Theft Program to address rail and cargo theft in known trouble spots.) One expert on supply-chain risks gave me an estimate of $50 billion in annual losses globally and noted that this kind of crime is a notorious problem in Mexico and Brazil. But essentially it’s impossible to get a clear picture of how much is purloined from the supply chain, who takes it or where it goes next.

We do know that often these hijacked goods are cycled back into the online ecosystem, turning up for sale on places like Amazon, eBay, Etsy and Facebook Marketplace (some e-bikes Chavez watched Llamas and others take from the trains later showed up on OfferUp). Sometimes products stolen out of Amazon containers are resold by third-party sellers back on Amazon in a kind of strange ouroboros, in which the snakehead of capitalism hungrily swallows its piracy tail.

Last June, California’s attorney general created what was touted as a first-of-its-kind agreement among online retailers that committed them to doing a better job tracking, reporting and preventing stolen items from being resold on their platforms. While declining to comment on specific cases, a spokesperson for Amazon told me that the company is working to improve the process of vetting sellers: The number of “bad actor attempts” to create new selling accounts on Amazon decreased to 800,000 in 2022 from six million in 2020.

But filched cargo can be hard to get a handle on; it shape-shifts, in effect. If you’re buying brand-new speakers from someone’s trunk in a parking lot, you can probably deduce that there’s a good chance they were ripped off. But the anonymity of the internet essentially launders stuff.

Cindy M. Rosen, executive director of the Americas-focused branch of the Transported Asset Protection Association, told me that the job of tracking misappropriated goods across borders and territories and law-enforcement jurisdictions is often futile, particularly when merchandise is moved out of the country before being sold back into the United States online. Rosen would know: Her organization is made up of insurance companies, federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies, security firms, shippers, truckers, railroad companies and manufacturers. “You’re basically trying to catch a fly in a dark room,” she says.

More freight is moved on trucks than on trains, and much more is stolen off trucks, too. Trucking is a chaotic industry, with hundreds of thousands of companies, some as small as a single driver and a truck. Rail, on the other hand, is essentially duopolistic: Just two companies, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, serve the entire western United States. (CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway dominate the East.) Against trucks, thieves use various forms of digital forgery and cyberfraud, including something called a fictitious pickup, in which someone impersonates an authorized truck driver online and reroutes a truck’s load. This kind of theft increased almost 600 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to CargoNet data. And on the rails, some cargo — coal, grain, cement, fertilizer, petrochemicals, lumber — is just too cumbersome to appeal to thieves. It’s easier to run off with pallets of beer or the newest-issue Nikes.

But railroads have increasingly been vying to move more containerized freight. They want to make the most of the e-commerce boom. The fastest-growing segment of rail traffic is what’s called intermodal, which refers to shipping containers and trailers that move on more than one mode of transit: ships, trains and trucks. These containers often carry merchandise bound for stores or packages bound for consumers. Amazon, for example, now has its own branded containers, in part to meet its net-zero carbon emission goal (hauling a ton of goods on rail produces about eight times less emission than on a truck). Such intermodal trains tend to be long, which can make them more vulnerable.

Over the past decade, in a push for greater efficiency, and amid record-breaking profits, the country’s largest railroads have been stringing together longer trains. Some now stretch two or even three miles in length. At the same time, these companies cut the number of employees by nearly 30 percent, so fewer people now manage these longer trains. (Currently the Federal Railroad Administration does not place limits on freight-train length, despite safety concerns.) The tracks heading away from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are thick with long trains carrying intermodal containers teeming with imports from Asia — electronics, toys, clothing, shoes, food and beverages — just the sort of offerings thieves find most enticing.

“See this?” One of the plainclothes L.A.P.D. Cargo Theft Unit detectives was directing my attention to a box of electronic bird feeders with a yellow sticker on it showing an image of batteries. “Thieves look for placards like this because they know there will be some kind of electronics inside,” he said. We were in a 7,500-square-foot windowless warehouse, surrounded by metal fencing and looped barbed wire, located under Interstate 10 in downtown Los Angeles. The warehouse, packed with $5 million worth of cargo stolen from BNSF Railway, belonged to the California Department of Transportation but had been leased or subleased by thieves the detectives were still trying to identify. They ran across the place almost accidentally a few days earlier, while tracking a truckload of boosted tires.

Inside the cavernous room, the towering stacks included pallets of Nike shoes; more pallets piled high with Adidas shoes; Under Armour leggings; Crocs in countless colors and sizes tumbling from boxes onto the dusty floor; air purifiers; computer monitors; thousands of bottles of melatonin gummies; those knee scooters people roll around on after injuries; cordless robotic pool cleaners; tobaccoless cigarettes that smelled like lawn clippings; vape pens; REI outdoor gear; boxes of plastic trash-can liners; Bluetooth speakers; plastic shower curtains; car seats; stainless-steel cookware; and Disney backpacks featuring a heroine I didn’t recognize (an image search later revealed that she was Asha, from an animated film, “Wish,” that had not yet been released).

One of the two detectives at the warehouse was previously on the Train Burglary Task Force with Chavez. (Because they work undercover, I’m not using their names.) The detectives studied the labels and purchase-order numbers on the boxes in order to determine the companies of origin and where their goods were being shipped to and from. Then they called asset-recovery specialists at the companies. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour had already sent trucks to recoup their missing goods. The detectives didn’t know yet where the items were stolen, or even if they were taken from an eastbound train or a westbound train or a truck in a rail yard. They suspected that the jumble had been accumulating in this warehouse for months.

A BNSF special agent was present, too, creating an inventory of the pillaged property; in most states, the railroad police are certified law-enforcement officers with arrest powers on and off the tracks. He wouldn’t give me his name because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media, but we chatted for a while as two BNSF workers with a forklift loaded the pallets into waiting trucks to be taken to another warehouse. Unprompted, he said that he wanted to retire to an island with no trains, a place where he would never again hear a lonesome train whistle at night. “I hate that,” he told me.

Some of the stockpile in the warehouse would most likely be reclaimed. Some would be sold to liquidators. Some would be tossed. The detectives told me that most ingestible things are destroyed — who wants the liability of putting recovered food, beverages or medicines back into the supply chain?

One detective’s cellphone rang. “It’s Disney,” he said, tucking the receiver under his chin. It turned out the company had opened its own case into those missing backpacks, which were looted en route to Las Vegas, thereby prematurely letting this heroine out into the world.

It is not unusual for stolen cargo to be hidden for a time in just such a warehouse before it can be resold. One night in the spring of 2022, Chavez and his crew of detectives sat in unmarked cars on a road beside the tracks where trains leave the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It was here, on what’s called the Alameda Corridor, where the detectives first spotted the enthusiastic Llamas, loading up a car with oversize boxes containing high-end electric bicycles fresh off the train. That night the detectives followed him to Francisco Guerra, who stashed cargo in a parking lot and in a warehouse packed with burglarized items, including brand-new coffins.

The detectives were looking for people working together like this, in organized fencing rings (someone who buys and sells plundered goods is called a fence). But over the course of the task force’s existence, which lasted nearly a year, only 34 of the roughly 700 people arrested or cited for stealing from trains were part of these organized crews. Many more were just passers-by or unhoused people living near the tracks in R.V.s or makeshift structures who just happened to pick up fallen boxes.

‘Look, you’re not El Chapo. This isn’t the crime of the century. This is just some junk in an Amazon trailer.’

Chavez gave me a driving tour of the Alameda Corridor and the city’s other train-theft hot spots in his truck one bright day last October. The tracks were no longer littered with boxes; new fencing and barbed wire had been put up beside them. “Keep your eyes out,” Chavez told me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see someone stealing stuff off the trains today.” We pulled up alongside a Union Pacific freight train waiting to enter a yard. “They hit that one,” he said.

He had stopped his truck in the middle of busy Valley Boulevard to point out a container with its doors hanging wide open. Most of the train cars carried double-stacked containers; many of the top containers had been breached. In some we could see cardboard packages of various sizes. Others looked empty.

“See, they hit that one too,” Chavez said. “That’s Walmart. You know they’re going to hit that one.”

Earlier that morning, before he picked me up, Chavez took the psychological exam required to become a law-enforcement agent for BNSF Railway. (He retired from the police force early in 2023, just after the Train Burglary Task Force disbanded.) Soon he would be somewhere out along the company’s 32,500 miles of track, which had him thinking about Llamas. In late 2022, Llamas, Arizmendi and their fence, Guerra, were arrested and each charged with multiple felonies related to train heists. Arizmendi and Guerra are serving time in jail; Llamas, however, stopped showing up to his court dates and vanished, after pleading not guilty to eight felony charges and posting bail. “I have a feeling I’ll see him again,” Chavez told me, his eyes scanning the trains as if he might spot the man that very day, scaling the side of a train in motion, bolt cutters in hand.

Climbing aboard a moving freight train isn’t as difficult as it might seem. I know; I’ve done it. My hometown in Northern California, like many Western towns, was tiny and sliced through by tracks. In ninth grade, my best friend and I started pulling ourselves up on freight trains as they crawled through town before beginning their ascent into the Sierras.

We were bored and had recently discovered the Beat writers and were making a literary zine on my dad’s copy machine; teenage girls scrambling atop the machinery of capitalism was appealingly transgressive. If Jack Kerouac and blues musicians and the teenagers of the Great Depression could hop trains without being crushed, we could, too. I can relate, a little at least, to Llamas’s exuberance. Clinging on with one hand, we sometimes used rusty nails to scratch words on the brightly painted boxes before jumping back down into the sharp gravel and walking back toward home. We never went more than a mile and we never stole anything, although honestly, I wonder now if we might have tried to, had we known how easy it is to open those containers.

While truckers are sometimes hijacked at gun- or knifepoint, train theft is almost exclusively nonviolent nowadays. Not so with old-timey train robbers, who were notedly homicidal, with a penchant for explosives. In one study published in the journal Criminal Justice Review, researchers analyzed information culled from newspaper accounts of 241 train heists that occurred between 1866 and 1930. Granted, reporters were most likely covering the more violent robberies, but still, more than 90 percent of them were committed at gunpoint, nearly 30 percent involved dynamite and, in roughly as many cases, at least one person was shot. Sometimes thieves would blow up the track, derailing the train and killing passengers. Newspapers breathlessly covered the thefts, as did Western dime novels and traveling Wild West shows. Notorious train thieves like Butch Cassidy and Jesse James became household names.

In 1903, moviegoers flocked to theaters to see a short silent film, “The Great Train Robbery,” featuring four gunslinging bandits commandeering a train and stealing valuables from passengers before escaping on horseback, only to be chased down by a local posse and killed in a shootout. Westerns, with their themes of crime, pursuit and retribution, became part of how we think about criminal justice and the landscapes of the West.

It wasn’t uncommon for some train robbers to enjoy a kind of folk hero status too. One thief, William L. Carlisle, who started sticking up trains in Wyoming in 1916, was known as the Robin Hood of the Rails, for his practice of never taking money from women, children or servicemen and for occasionally redistributing a snatched coin before fleeing. When the Library of Congress sent ethnomusicologists to travel the country in the late 1930s to record folk music, they returned to Washington with numerous ballads in both English and Spanish about train bandits.

The rail companies didn’t enjoy the same populist affection. They were owned by rail barons who engaged in monopolistic practices and price-fixing schemes while exposing workers and passengers to the sort of danger that’s hard to imagine today. “The railroad was the largest single cause of violent death,” Mark Aldrich, an economic historian, writes in his 2006 book, “Death Rode the Rails,” which details dismemberments, derailments, bridge collapses and run-over pedestrians. In the early 20th century, nearly 12,000 people were killed annually by trains, vastly more than were killed by train thieves.

The human geography of the West is so entangled with the railroad as to be indistinguishable from it: Entire cities and towns exist and persist because people organized themselves around the train. When Charles Hodgson, a researcher who is now an economics professor at Yale, studied the effect of railroad construction between 1868 and 1889 on the distribution of towns in the American West, he found that post offices (a stand-in for town health) nearest to train tracks were much likelier to still be extant in 2010 than those a bit farther afield. These latter towns eventually collapsed in what researchers call the “agglomeration shadow,” as people moved and clumped together along the tracks.

By the late 19th century, the railroads had a growing army of private police; they didn’t exactly help the railroads bolster their appeal with many local communities. These private police forces were often supplied by the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, known for hunting down train burglars and violently breaking up union strikes. In his history of the Pinkertons, the historian S. Paul O’Hara describes the agency as “the apotheosis of industrial violence and corporate power in Gilded Age America.”

The legacy of using private security to guard the movement of freight is alive and well in the modern day supply chain too. Insurance, shipping and retail companies hire private investigators, asset-recovery teams and loss-prevention personnel, many of them former police officers. Though the rail companies have their own police forces and interstate law-enforcement authority — Union Pacific police officers, for example, patrol 32,000 miles of track in 23 states — much of the work still falls to local law enforcement.

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The Los Angeles basin is the country’s undisputed capital of cargo theft.Credit…Michael Christopher Brown for The New York Times

Last fall, I met Buddy Porch, a detective from the Fontana Police Department, at a monthly meeting of the Western States Cargo Theft Association. He is one of two detectives recently assigned to cargo theft in Fontana, a city of 200,000 or so, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles. “We’re just being hammered, completely overwhelmed,” he told me. The city has been transformed by speedily constructed, prefabricated tilt-up mega-warehouses. Loads from semi-trucks are being taken, train cars emptied out. The entire region has been altered by digital commerce; the inland empire now has in excess of 1.4 billion square feet of warehouse space, with plans for millions more. It’s a place run through by train tracks and traversed by nearly a million trucks daily, spewing carbon dioxide and pollutants and tempting all manner of thievery. It’s a lot for Buddy Porch.

The technology exists to make containers less susceptible to theft. Companies sell container-locking devices with GPS and cellular connectivity that permit the containers to be tracked at all times. Sensors stuck on the freight itself can report locations and precise conditions inside containers, including temperature, humidity and the bumpiness of the ride. Containers can be outfitted with smart seals, motion-detection alarms, video surveillance and infrared imaging systems that can detect intruders’ body heat. And yet, the locks so often used to secure containers with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise inside are easier to cut off than the lock I use to secure my old beater bicycle.

I kept asking people, Why? The answers were varied, but as far as I can tell, the reason is that in the last several decades, the cost of shipping has fallen so much that cheap shipping has become part of the essential energy force pushing the tsunami of low-cost goods across the seas and onto our shores. A company with 20,000 containers might decide it isn’t worth an extra $10 per container for better locks or seals. In part because even if they did opt for the upgraded security, who or what would respond when the alarm goes off or when the smart seal sends notice that it’s been breached? What if the signal pings from a train in the middle of some empty stretch in West Texas? “Anything that adds to that transportation cost, including security, is typically thought of as extraneous or unnecessary,” Tony Pelli, director of security and resilience at the multinational business consultancy BSI Group, told me. After all, most cargo is insured anyway.

But the insurance companies, for their part, would very much like to reduce the plundering. Travelers, one of the largest cargo insurers in the country, employs 12 full-time cargo theft investigators who travel the land, sometimes lending a “sting trailer” wired with surveillance equipment to law enforcement, to claw back some of those stolen goods. They’re also trying to educate warehousing, shipping, trucking and rail companies on how to deter thieves in the first place. Talk to anyone whose business is protecting or insuring freight, and they will tell you some iteration of “cargo at rest is cargo at risk.” They advise truckers, for example, to avoid stopping at all within the first 200 miles from their pickup point, in case they’re being followed.

An opened box of Maker’s Mark whiskey bottles sat by a cubicle on the fifth floor of L.A.P.D.’s imposing downtown headquarters, evidence from a recently recovered stolen truckload. A cargo-theft detective’s cellphone rang; on the other end was an officer from a division to the south who had received a 911 call reporting that two men were rifling through an Amazon truck trailer. Fifteen minutes later, when the two detectives pulled up in their two separate cars to the blue container, with its telltale swooping logo, they could see that the truck’s cab was gone. The container’s back doors were ajar, and boxes had spilled out onto the sidewalk. Following a detective, I eagerly climbed up into the container, wondering if my anticipatory excitement was akin to what thieves feel when they steal a container but don’t yet know what their treasure hunt will yield.

What I found inside were boxes and boxes of Arm & Hammer Forever Fresh cat litter. “It looks like a load of Amazon crap,” said the shorter detective still standing on the street, hands on hips, peering inside. A bit deeper in, I could see plastic anti-scratch cat protector couch covers, Cheerios, Christmas advent puzzles, more cat litter. Someone had been there before us and had helped themselves to the Funables Super Mario fruit-flavored snacks: The colorful candies and ravaged packaging were scattered across the floor. The detectives figured someone had probably stolen the truck, popped open the container, found it rich in cat litter and ditched it. The taller detective called someone in asset recovery at Amazon, who confirmed that the container should have arrived in another city two days earlier.

The detective asked the Amazon rep if the company was planning to come claim the container. The two of them went back and forth for a while, until eventually the detective told the rep that he had 90 minutes to get someone there or the police would impound the container. “It doesn’t make sense for us to spend half the day babysitting this thing,” the detective said, exasperated, when he got off the phone.

After a tow truck took the container away, the detectives returned to the neighborhood police station. Earlier that morning, L.A.P.D. officers patrolling the area near the abandoned container spotted a black S.U.V., with two men inside, that matched the description given by the 911 caller. They pulled the vehicle over and, seeing what looked like Amazon packages inside, took the men into custody. Now the taller detective interviewed them with the help of another Spanish-speaking officer. At first, the men in custody didn’t want to talk. Then the detective brought in snacks and water. The detective told me: “I said: ‘Look, you’re not El Chapo. This isn’t the crime of the century. This is just some junk in an Amazon trailer.”’

One of the men started talking. He told the detective that he was mostly living on the streets; the S.U.V. belonged to his brother; the container was already open when they found it; a person he didn’t know offered him $20 to help unload; he and his friend took the money, and when they were done, they grabbed some spoils for themselves too, which they had stashed in his brother’s tent down by the railroad tracks.

The detectives put the man who talked, the one with the brother, in a police vehicle and had him direct a patrol officer to his brother’s tent. The two detectives followed behind, till they pulled up to a row of structures built from plywood and tarps along a section of seemingly abandoned tracks near the intersection of East Olympic Boulevard and Lemon Street. “All we want is the stuff,” the taller detective told the man identified as the brother. “We don’t care about anyone else. Or anything that’s going on.”

The man by the tent looked at his brother in the back of the patrol car with one of the weariest expressions I have ever seen. And then he started lugging packages from his tent. A box containing a pet-grooming vacuum cleaner. Two new radio-controlled model airplanes. Doc Martens boots. Boxes overflowing with flip-flops. Printer cartridges. A cerulean blue spaghetti-strap dress in a plastic sleeve. The brother disappeared back behind the tarp door, and the shorter detective called to him, “Bring me the boxes, I know there’s more shit in there.”

Once the detectives were satisfied that they had what they’d come for, they loaded it all into their unmarked cars and drove away. The man in the back of the patrol car was eventually driven to a police station, where he would spend the night in custody. Later, the detectives would look up all the recovered loot on Amazon and tally up its total value, which exceeded the $950 minimum required for a charge of felony grand theft in California. (The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to file a felony charge and referred the case to the city attorney’s office, which filed a misdemeanor instead.)

I left the encampment discombobulated by the mismatch between the perpetrators (down-and-out men living in tents stealing goods someone else had already nabbed and discarded), and the victim (a multinational company valued at more than $1.5 trillion). The stuff had been taken unlawfully, yes, but part of the reason these companies manufacture items for so much less in Asia and then transport them thousands of miles in ships and trains and trucks is so they don’t have to pay the costs associated with adhering to environmental and labor laws here. Also, I was flummoxed trying to imagine how a man living in a tent would go about selling a stolen pet-grooming vacuum cleaner. What even is a pet-grooming vacuum cleaner?

On my last day in Los Angeles, I drove south in my rented Chevy Spark to take in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which appeared on the horizon at sunrise as a single mega port enveloped in a particulate-laden, golden-colored haze. It was strangely beautiful. And a little scary. The closer I got, the more semi-trucks were rumbling past me in both directions. Numerous trains, side by side, waited to be loaded on half a dozen parallel tracks. Lines of trucks snaked around in no discernible pattern. Stacks of chassis towered in fenced-off yards. Everywhere containers were in motion; massive gantry cranes reached out over ships to grab at steel boxes like hungry horses. One human in a puny rental car can’t take in the scale of the global supply chain, but even this sliver of something so vast was enough to inspire awe.

The four L.A.P.D.’s Cargo Theft Unit detectives had been scheduled that day to go undercover at a mall and wander around stores pretending to be shoppers. Southern California had had a recent uptick of what were being called flash-mob robberies. The Versace store in the Beverly Center was hit, as was the Nordstrom in a mall in Canoga Park and an Yves Saint Laurent in Glendale. Videos from Southern California and elsewhere were going viral that showed people in black ski masks swarming stores, grabbing merchandise, jamming it into large garbage bags and fleeing. The Police Department, along with other regional law enforcement agencies, now had a new Organized Retail Crimes Task Force. The detectives were setting up in anticipation of the next flash-mob robbery.

I’d asked Alfonso Lopez, former commanding officer of the commercial crimes division at the L.A.P.D., who until recently oversaw the Cargo Theft Unit detectives (he is now assistant commander for the Operations South Bureau), how he thought the overall losses from these flash mobs compared with the scale of theft from trains and trucks. He said cargo theft was bigger. But that didn’t matter, the viral flash-mob videos had snagged in the city’s psyche, in the country’s psyche.

I pulled over into a dusty lot to listen to the low roar of the port and watch the trucks and trains. Just one of these steel boxes contained more merchandise than a dozen flash mobbers could ever hold. But the supply chain is hard to grasp fully with its anonymous-looking containers rolling by, giving away so little about their contents or destinations. Our collective gaze was shifting toward the human drama we can see, focusing instead on videos of these young people dressed like ninjas running full tilt for the exit, stolen goods spilling from their arms.


Source image for illustration above: ‘’Rage at Dawn’’ (1955) film still from Mary Evans Picture Library/RKO/Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection.

Malia Wollan is a contributing writer for the magazine and the director of two reporting fellowships at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Pablo Delcan is a designer and an art director from Spain. In 2014, he founded Delcan & Co., a design studio based in New York.

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