What Happens When A Truck Carrying Radioactive Material Gets Robbed In Mexico?

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Last December, a truck containing lethal radioactive cobalt-60 was stolen outside Mexico City, briefly causing an international panic. Then, almost immediately, the story quietly disappeared — but the questions surrounding it didn’t.

On the morning of Dec. 3, 2013, Francisco Sanchez, a farmer on his way to work in Hueypoxtla, a rural town near Mexico City, found a pile of old machine parts strewn in the field behind his house. One piece, which resembled a water pump or a large diving bell, was so big and heavy he couldn’t move it. There was also a metal box with a scratched-away label that he couldn’t read, and a cylinder about 3 feet long, which Sanchez thought he could use to split firewood.

The other farmers hadn’t yet arrived, so he grabbed the cylinder with both hands and heaved it over his shoulder, carrying it a few yards over to the corn husks that had been piled in the field to dry. He was sure no one would find it in there.

Sanchez hadn’t yet heard the news, but these were parts of a radiation therapy device that Mexico’s Social Security Institute was replacing throughout state hospitals, stolen from a truck the day before. Even though the machine was considered obsolete as a medical device, it contained 3,000 curies of cobalt-60, a Category 1 (the most dangerous classification) synthetic radioactive isotope — more than enough to kill anyone exposed to it.

The Pemex in Tepojaco where the robbery occurred. Photo by Mary Cuddehe for BuzzFeed

The hijacking had taken place 12 miles away in Tepojaco, a town popular with truckers traveling in and out of Mexico City. The driver was en route from a public hospital in Tijuana to a nearby disposal site for hazardous waste and had pulled off the highway to sleep in an unlit spot across from a Pemex gas station. At around 1 a.m., he heard a tap on the window and saw two men with guns standing outside. They forced their way into the cab and bound the driver’s hands.

The driver’s partner was in the back and heard the noise of the driver being tied up. He managed to slip away without notice. Security footage revealed little else; the robbery had taken place in the middle of the night. Armando Ramos, a federal agent who responded to the scene, told me that the truck, a white 2007 Volvo, could be made out pulling into a spot directly behind another truck, which obscured it from view. Soon the truck pulled away; the culprits were never seen. There was also no way to guess where the truck had gone.

The hazardous materials were being transported without security, and though the truck was, according to some early reports, outfitted with GPS, it hadn’t been turned on — which looked suspect. Initially, said Ramos, “we assumed the driver had something to do with it.” According to one study, 10,000 highway cargo thefts occurred per year between 2006 and 2010, a rate of 27 per day, and the highest concentration is in the towns encircling Mexico City — and autorobo, when companies are in on the robberies to take a cut as well as collect insurance, is also commonplace.

That theory was ruled out against the more mundane reality that the hijackers didn’t know what they’d taken. Instead, the thieves had followed a standard script: Rather than hurting the driver, they simply let him out down the road, alive, and continued on, another night’s work. They would have known that no one was watching them and believed they would not be caught. Victims of crimes often don’t bother reporting them to police, who aren’t likely to solve them, and who may have a stake themselves. According to Amnesty International, complaints of civil rights violations at the hands of authorities have increased 600% between 2003 and 2013.

But this robbery broke through, ascending to an increasingly rare category in Mexico: that of a notorious, headline-making crime. The hijackers who thought they were pulling off another score instead had pulled off the most brazen theft of radioactive materials in memory. Twenty-four hours later, the world knew what they’d done.

Major U.S. networks devoted coverage to the missing “ingredients for a radioactive dirty bomb,” in the words of one headline. The White House said it was “closely monitoring” the situation. Juan Eibenschutz, the director of Mexico’s National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, who’d flown straight home from Paris to handle the crisis, made a public plea: “If anyone finds a big chunk of metal with radiation symbols all over it they should notify us immediately.”

In the world of nuclear safety, stories of mishaps and misidentification abound. The most infamous case involves a Brazilian man who was so mesmerized by the cesium-137 capsule that turned up in his junkyard that he opened it up and passed out the contents to neighbors, who rubbed it on their skin. Even in Mexico this had happened before: A source of cobalt-60 was melted into rebar that became dining table legs bound for the U.S. market; they weren’t discovered until a delivery truck took a wrong turn in the vicinity of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and triggered alarms.

But this was a theft, not an accident, perpetrated in the midst of a vast economy thriving on the traffic of illicit, dangerous things. What if the cobalt-60 was removed from its protective encasement, sold, and harnessed for a dirty bomb — an apocalyptic twist straight out of Dr. Strangelove? Mexican officials privately believed that a terrorist plot was as unlikely as the Doomsday Machine. But as long as the cobalt-60 was missing, the possibility couldn’t be dismissed. The International Atomic Energy Agency deemed the teletherapy machine “extremely dangerous.” Eibenschutz added, “It’s almost absolutely certain that whoever removed this material by hand is either dead or about to die.”

And then, just as suddenly as it had appeared as the latest crisis on the evening news, the cobalt-60 was safely recovered and the story vanished. A year — and zero known radiation-related fatalities — later, it’s still not clear who was behind the theft. And whether that’s a cause for relief or a cause for greater worry is up for debate.

Illustration by Adam Setala for BuzzFeed

Removed from the country, it’s easy to think of Mexico as suffering from a single form of cartel-related bloodshed. But up close, a more insidious form of violence has crept in. Criminal organizations once devoted to trafficking drugs have diversified widely: A single recent operation against La Familia Michoacana, a militant group with a mythically devout ethos, revealed that the group had sold 1.1 million tons of illegally extracted iron ore in China for $42 million. In 2012, Mexico estimated that in lost wages, foreign investments, and public health bills, crime at large had siphoned $16.5 billion, or 1.3%, from the GDP. Overall killings are down, but in a recent self-reported survey, kidnapping and extortion were up. And everyday crimes are the ones that pull at the social fabric, making life and labor miserable. Perhaps most instructive of all: The perception of violence has risen. More Mexicans feel less safe.

President Enrique Peña Nieto recently attempted to address the problem by unveiling a special economic crimes task force composed of fresh-faced officers who, as a selling point, had never before worked for the police. Though, as one analyst told the Associated Press in a report about the new gendarmerie, “We have been creating new police forces for decades — armored police, ‘incorruptible, super-trained police.’” But to little effect.

In the aftermath of the December hijacking, little focus went to the thieves or the farmers who found the cobalt. The five men arrested allegedly belonged to a truck theft gang centered in Zumpango, a commuter town on the Mexico state–Hidalgo border, booked within days of the robbery. Local police had rounded up the suspects and handed them over to federal agents. The Mexican government often trumpets its marquee arrests, but the attorney general’s office couldn’t even dig up a press release when I called. And so, along with the culprits, the other issues surrounding the hijacking that had roused public attention — the fact that government contractors were transporting lethal radioactive waste through gang-rife territory without security or even GPS — were soon forgotten. People were understandably less interested in some common thieves than the specter of a dirty bomb. There’d been no media parades showcasing the suspects, no presidential tweets, only a quiet booking. The men were shipped off to a federal prison in Tamaulipas to await judgment.

Five months after the hijacking, I flew to Mexico City. I hired a driver, Marco Callejas, to get around the towns outside the capital, and he picked me up in front of a Starbucks on a sunny morning last May. Marco wore a sporty uniform of track pants, sneakers, and wraparound sunglasses like the kind off-duty police officers wear. His car was an old maroon Tsuru, Mexico’s ubiquitous Nissan Sentra. The taxi company had randomly assigned him, so when Marco said he’d grown up near Pachuca, the capital of Hidalgo state, which forms a triangle with Tepojaco, where the cobalt-60 was stolen, and the cornfield in Hueypoxtla where it was found, it felt comforting, like good luck. Marco patted the front seat, the only one besides his with a belt. “Come on up!” he said. I climbed in.

As Marco and I drove out of Mexico City, I asked if he remembered the hijacking. “Gosh, it would be so easy to cross something like that over the border.” Marco shook his head. “It’s a good thing the Mexicans and the Arabs aren’t friends!”

We took a road veering off the highway and drove for a long time on dirt roads, passing through small towns. The countryside looked like an old Western stage setting with cacti and mountains in the distance, except for the billboards advertising a hotline for kidnapping victims and the highway sign riddled with bullet holes. None of the addresses we plugged into the GPS seemed to work. So we stopped a man on a horse for directions.

In Zumpango, we pulled up to the scrapyard belonging to one of the alleged thieves, Luis Angel Torres. His father, also named Luis, was standing in front talking to a customer with his arms crossed over a black T-shirt that read “The Queen of Convenience Stores Works Here.”

He led us through the scrapyard’s receiving garage, which opened up to a large sorting area where workers were crushing metal into perfectly compressed squares. According to the family, Luis Angel was accused of, among other things, dismantling the stolen truck, crushing it to pieces, and selling it off. (Luis Angel is facing charges relating to organized crime and abandonment of radioactive materials, according to the family’s attorney; repeated requests for information about the hijacking from state and federal officials were denied or ignored.) The office was painted bright lavender and had a large shrine to Jesus.

Torres made himself comfortable. He put his feet up on the desk, over a collage of family photos overlaid with plastic. Torres said he was a family man. Scrap metal was all his boy had ever known, he said.

Luis Angel, who was 25 at the time of his arrest, was the youngest of Torres’ five children, a father of three, and the fourth generation to work in chatarro, a business his great grandfather had started out of a pushcart. Now the Torres empire extended to four or five scrapyards. Three months before his arrest, Luis Angel had opened his own.

The way Torres told the story, on the afternoon following the hijacking, Miguel, a childhood friend of Luis Angel, showed up at Luis Angel’s new shop with a large wooden crate for sale. “There was nothing on the outside marking it,” Torres said. The next day, Luis Angel’s 16-year-old part-time employee Andres opened the crate and began to unpack the contents. Dust poured out of the box, and he peered inside, noticing a small radiation symbol. Luis Angel and Andres suddenly felt a wave of nausea — an early sign of radiation poisoning — and rushed to a local clinic.

As Torres was talking, his daughter wandered into the room. She was also dressed in black. She waved a hand over her soiled shirt and said something about “getting our hands dirty.”

Torres continued. Returning from the clinic that night, Luis Angel was frightened. News of the missing materials was making rounds on the radio and on the evening news, and he would have known what he’d purchased by then. He and Andres loaded up an old Dodge truck and headed out of town. After a while on the dark road, skirting the main highways, the field in Hueypoxtla must have seemed desolate enough.

Dumping the material was Luis Angel’s mistake, Torres said, not stealing it. “We say we’re innocent. But who’s going to listen to us?”

The following afternoon two men arrived at Andres’ house claiming to have been sent from the public health administration. Upstairs they found Andres, Luis Angel, and a cousin of Luis Angel. In fact they were ministerial police. They had received a tip from the clinic about two men exhibiting signs of radiation poisoning. All three were taken into custody.

“This whole story about a dirty bomb is a bunch of fantasies.”

Back in Mexico City, I had gone to see Juan Eibenschutz at his office in the center of the city. The building sat on a quiet leafy street not too far from tony Reforma Avenue, where the federal police work in gleaming towers. Evidently nuclear safety wasn’t receiving the same funding as organized crime was, but Eibenschutz seemed as unconcerned with status as propriety. “What really scares people, in particular the authorities” — he emphasized the word — “is the psychological damage a terrorist could inflict if he says, ‘I’ve got a source and I’m gonna activate it and everyone’s gonna die.’”

“But wasn’t it considered a Category 1 source? And isn’t that considered highly dangerous?” I asked.

He smiled at me, the way that an adult smiles at a child. “It’s highly dangerous. That’s what I’m telling you! If you have this thing at, say, one foot during half an hour, you’re dead.” But, he said, the material wasn’t an ideal choice for a bomb. “You pack a bomb with dynamite or conventional explosive, surround it with highly radioactive material and explode it. … Most of the material gets dispersed.” He went on: If anyone wanted to use the cobalt, they’d have to extract it safely first, and the pellets had been properly sealed.

But what if they did?

“Well,” Eibenschutz chuckled, “I don’t have the mentality of a terrorist.”

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Illustration by Adam Setala for BuzzFeed

After a couple of days in the car together, Marco had started to feel less like a hired driver than a co-conspirator. He talked about the way this gang or that gang operated, and pointed out landmarks. “There used to be a lot of assaults here. Truckers would pull onto these dirt roads, and a lot of women were raped,” he said one afternoon as we passed an empty street. He seemed to enjoy being an investigator. He asked a lot of questions, and offered theories of his own. It occurred to me that Marco might have worked in law enforcement. But when I asked, he said, “No way. Mexican cops are symbols of corruption and mediocrity.”

Francisco Sanchez lived outside Hueypoxtla on communal farming land. When we pulled into his driveway, he was outside in the shade of a giant flowering prickly pear cactus, the plant that jutted out of the earth everywhere. Sanchez’s house, like all the houses there, was a hodgepodge of brick, stone, mud, and corrugated tin. The indoor space blended into the outdoors. Hueypoxtla is a windy, dry place, but it’s never too cold, and the climate is good for growing crops like barley and alfalfa. Marco pointed out that the maguey plant grows wild there. The maguey is the plant used to make pulque, the ancient Aztec spirit, which, also according to Marco, the poorest residents of the region sometimes feed to their children when there’s nothing else to eat.

Photo by Mary Cuddehe for BuzzFeed

That afternoon, Sanchez pointed to his perch under the prickly pears and disappeared into the house, re-emerging with the boxes of the medications he has had to take since he got sick and pictures of his radiation burns that his wife, Yolanda, who was washing dishes in their outdoor sink, had snapped in the hospital. Sanchez had been hospitalized for six weeks with radiation poisoning and still wasn’t able to expose his skin to sunlight for very long. He was only 41 but looked like an old man, sun-weathered.

He wasn’t wearing a shirt and had a large bandage covering his left shoulder and another taped over his hand. Radiation sickness can be fatal, but Sanchez said he’d had on a thick jacket that morning and had only carried the cylinder a few meters. “Look,” he said, then slowly peeled the bandage to reveal skin that was still seared and pink. Normally, he said, he would have been out in the fields preparing for the summer rains, but he hadn’t worked since that morning in December. As we were talking, his 9-month-old son wheeled by on a mobile high chair.

The cornfield was only a couple of kilometers away down the slope of a dusty road, just past the Marie Curie kindergarten. “Crazy about that name, right?” I said, as we passed the school, to silence.

I had noticed empty canals lining the fields, and Sanchez explained that effluent from Mexico City was pumped out there, which the farmers use to irrigate their crops. I imagined the wastewater-fed crops being sold back to the capital and being consumed and then surging back through the pipes to Hueypoxtla like some giant closed-loop digestive tract.

Photo by Mary Cuddehe for BuzzFeed

We reached the field. Stepping out of the car, Sanchez seemed possessed by his memory. He retraced his steps, circling the place he’d found the cylinder. He had noticed six deep tire ruts that morning, indicating to him that whoever discarded the materials had labored to do so. One of the tracks was still visible, baked into the earth. He straightened his back and swept his arm, motioning to the emptiness. “Why would anyone leave this here?”

After he hid the cylinder, Sanchez had felt ill and experienced what he called “a tremendous vomit,” but he hadn’t made the connection, so he went back to work, and he didn’t tell anyone what he’d found. Throughout the day others had tried to move the parts. The biggest piece, the shield, was too heavy, and night fell with the pieces as Sanchez had found them.

For the first week, Sanchez had been afraid to talk about what was happening to him, even as 100 Marines, federal agents, and local police cordoned off the field and dispatched a robot to retrieve the cobalt. He watched the evening news, clutching his son tightly, and asked Yolanda to rub ointment on his shoulder. Finally he let on to a friend. “I was dying of panic,” he told me. “People ask why I waited so long, but what they don’t understand is that I was totally blocked.”

A neighbor, Mauro Moya, a truck driver, took a walk to the field with his son and son-in-law and circled the objects like the farmers had done the day before, measuring and weighing them with their eyes. The biggest piece couldn’t be lifted with a wheelbarrow or a tractor. But they estimated that the metal was worth $400. It was enough to cover the family’s expenses for two weeks. Moya hurried back up the hill for his truck. He hooked chains around the shield and dragged it up the road to his property, kicking up a trail of shimmering dust. With the shield safely on his lot, the ecstatic Moya family took turns posing for photos, squatting down beside it, making peace signs, sitting on it, laughing. The celebration didn’t last long. Someone from the community had already called the police.

The Moya family soon began to think of their discovery as a curse. Three weeks later, the son-in-law, Juan Antonio Saldivar was arrested in a separate incident for stealing a cement truck. The attorney his family hired told me that the arrest glared with irregularities, chief among them the fact that it preceded the actual crime by half an hour. Officers rifling through his phone saw the photos of the shield and, in an apparent attempt to bolster their profile of Saldivar as a seasoned hijacker, stated in charging documents that he had been “detained” by authorities “in relation to the cobalt-60 theft.” Authorities questioned his family after the cobalt was recovered at their home but didn’t arrest them. Saldivar has now been in jail for 11 months and is facing a sentence of 16 years for the cement truck theft.

Photo by Mary Cuddehe for BuzzFeed

Later that day, as we were getting ready to leave Hueypoxtla, Marco pulled up a photograph on his phone of him in a federal police uniform. “I was a federal police officer for 10 years,” he said.

I stared at the image. It was definitely him. He had his back to the camera and was flexing his biceps. “Policia Federal” was emblazoned on his shirt; a pistol was sticking out of his belt.

“I’ve been suspended,” he said, quietly. “I’m being investigated for corruption.” He began to tell me a story about a friend who was involved with the narcos and had implicated him but it was all a lie, political stuff. But I couldn’t absorb any of it. The realization dawned that I’d hired a stranger who might or might not be a crooked ex-policeman to ferry me around the hijacking epicenter of Mexico in search of bandits with possible connections to organized crime or even terrorists and that I was now stuck alone with him in the country. But I wanted to go back to Zumpango to find Andres. Marco knew how to get there.

I had already gone by the place a couple of times. The story that Torres had told me implicated police officers in a corruption scheme and painted his son as an innocent man. But when I’d asked to see the truck that Luis Angel had used, he said the family had sold it. There was a third employee in the shop with him that day, but he had disappeared. Miguel was also nowhere to be found. Other details didn’t add up. Andres had been released by authorities on account of his age.

At Andres’ house, salsa was blaring and a big red truck was parked inside the gate. A tiny old woman in an apron answered the door. She said no one was home.

Down the street from the house, I had seen four men drinking cans of Modelo under an awning. “The truck was right there,” said one, pointing to a spot down the street, in front of Luis Angel’s shop, the one that had been raided by police. Torres had told me police had taped it off and the family was stuck paying the rent, but it looked open; a couple of cars were parked inside.

“Why was the truck sitting outside?” I asked.

“There were too many trucks in the shop already!” said another. They all laughed and continued dishing about the Torres family. According to them, Luis Angel had a chop shop. One of Luis Angel’s co-defendants, a man Torres had told me was a new acquaintance, in fact worked with him, they said, painting the stolen vehicles.

“I live across the street and sometimes there were so many trucks in there they had to park them outside,” said one of the men.

What about Miguel? I asked.

“There’s only one Miguel in this town,” the man said. “He went to the United States 15 years ago.”

The woman from Andres’ house walked down the street toward us. She passed the group in silence, looking straight ahead.

Photo by Mary Cuddehe for BuzzFeed

Julio Cesar, the Torres family’s attorney, had an office in a development outside Mexico City. The place had a disorienting bleached-out quality, like a condensed version of the Inland Empire, and his office was in a row house that looked exactly like all the others on his street.

Cesar swung open the door. He was short and round, like an egg. He had on a pink shirt, a pink tie, a blue sweater-vest, and blue slacks — Danny DeVito and Mr. Rogers at the same time. His partner, a pretty blonde with big brown eyes in a brown pantsuit, descended the stairs. Cesar invited me to have a seat on a brown-and-white leather sectional. I stared down at a zebra-print rug and, to my right, a pair of electric guitars upright in stands, at the ready.

I had hoped Cesar would give me a copy of the police report and charging documents. Such things can be tough to come by in Mexico, even after a case is closed. The files would clarify the questions I had about the Torres family’s story and the official versions that police had furnished to local press.

“So,” Cesar began. “Do you know how justice works in Mexico?” My heart sank as he went on. “If the courts find out that you’re interviewing witnesses — believe me, apart from affecting the defense, there’s juridical revenge. You start seeing stuff in the newspapers, on the radio, on TV. It just gets very complicated.”

He stood up. “What this case needs right now is for things to cool down.”

He showed me the door.

Back home, I followed up with him for a while, but the answer was always the same: He needed more time.

Not long after, Marco, who had added me on Facebook, posted the photo he’d shown me in the car of himself in uniform. The comments suggested that Marco’s friends didn’t know he had ever been a police officer. “What clothesline line’d ya steal that uniform from?” read one. “It’s not from a clothesline. It’s rented!”

I thought back to going to a federal police campus in Mexico City, where Marco told me he’d been “noticed” by one of the officers, who observed the particular way he jumped out of a van. A normal person — me — would exit facing forward. But Marco climbed out sideways, a reflex, he explained, from all his years carrying a long firearm. They’d spotted him and knew he was one of them.

Had Marco invented that story? Was he not a police officer accused of corruption? I thought it over for a couple of days. But I decided it was better not to ask him. I didn’t think I would get a straight answer.

On June 8, another source of radioactive material was stolen from a warehouse near Zumpango. This time it was a source that authorities considered less dangerous than the cobalt from the December heist. Police weren’t able to track it, but 10 days later it turned up in a garbage bag by a sewage canal. A security guard who spotted it believed the bag contained a body. Reports said it had sat by the canal untouched for several days, free for anyone to haul away.

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