Sonora Cracks Down On Illegal 'Chocolate Cars'
"May I see your license and registration?"
An Foreign Trade Verification officer stops an Arizona-plated truck on the highway outside the Sonoran capital Hermosillo in late June and asks the southward-bound couple inside about their paperwork and destination.
He's on the lookout for illegally imported cars.
Everyday, thousands of cars zip through the bustling traffic on the streets of Hermosillo. Among the chaos are an estimated 50,000 so-called carros chocolates, or chocolate cars.
"Crooked cars, chocolate cars, los pafas, irregulars. There are lot of names for them," said Luis Alberto Campa Lastra, Hermosillo's Public Safety Commissioner.
He said the term "chocolate cars" is a play on words from chueco, or crooked cars, and they’ve become a big problem in Sonora.
"Between the permissiveness of authorities and the tolerance that we've given, the situation has been degenerating and it's reached its limits," Campa Lastra said.
For years, authorities more or less accepted illegally imported vehicles in Sonora. It’s cheaper to buy a car north of the border, and for many families the cars are one of their only assets and their main form of transportation.
But things have gotten out of hand, he said. Amid the bustling Hermosillo traffic, it's not just family cars driving around without official license plates. Nowadays, unregistered Hummers and BMW's zoom through town with impunity, too, he said.
And without proper importation taxes, registration and emissions controls, illegally imported cars are bad for the economy, the environment and, most importantly, public safety, he said.
"That's our goal: security," he said.
Chocolate car drivers involved in serious crimes or even minor traffic accidents often just ditch their car at the scene, he said, because they know it can’t be traced back to them.
"It's become a very comfortable situation for someone who's committed a crime," he said.
So he decided to start cracking down in early June.
Back on the highway, the Arizona couple’s documents checked out and the officer sends them on their way with a "thank you."
U.S. citizens and legal residents don’t need to worry about their cars being confiscated in Sonora, Campa Lastra said. Travelers can move freely in Sonora’s Free Transit Zone, which includes Hermosillo and beach towns like Rocky Point and San Carlos. And those traveling outside the free transit zone can pick up a temporary permit.
"Are your plates up to date? Do you have your driver's license? You haven't committed any traffic violations? You won't have any problems," he said. "Sonora welcomes you with open arms."
Authorities aren’t going after everybody in Sonora, either, said Omar González, executive coordinator of Sonora's Foreign Trade Verification office (CEVCE).
"We've established certain rules and parameters for this process," he said.
Sonoran authorities are focusing their decommissions on cars made in 2010 or newer, luxury vehicles and cars that have been involved in some type of crime or were stolen from Arizona.
“We enjoy a very good working relationship with Mexican authorities," said Bart Graves, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
He said so far this year, the number of stolen vehicles returned to Arizona from Sonora has increased. In just the first six months of 2019, 122 stolen vehicles were located south of the border and returned to Arizona. That's compared to 185 total repatriated cars in 2018 and 181 in 2017.
“The good news is that Mexican authorities are concerned about it and are working very closely with us to return these vehicles, to put the heat on criminals that are doing this," he said. “So the fact that Sonoran authorities are putting more heat, down there, on this trade, helps us tremendously.”
But stolen cars make up just a small part of the total estimated 300,000 carros chocolates in Sonora, González said. That's about one in four cars in Sonora, and the number keeps going up.
"There's an expectation, right now," he said. "People think, 'Oh wow, the President is talking about a decree, so now's the time.'"
Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to legalize at least some irregular cars. So people are trying to sneak them into Mexico now, González said. He wants to stop more cars from entering the country, but supports legalizing the ones that are already here.
"Of course!" he said. "That's good for everyone."
But for now, improperly imported cars are still illegal to drive in Sonora, and authorities have to uphold the law, he said.
After talks with the community, his office instituted a grace period until July 15 to allow drivers time to get their paperwork in order. And it's working already, he said. The number of drivers licenses being issues in Hermosillo has doubled in recent weeks.
Protecting 'Chocolate Cars'
Some Sonorans, however, oppose the decision to start enforcing a formerly lax law.
"These cars that are here, and they came in because of government corruption," said Margarita Sau. "They're innumerable. No one can even say how many there are."
Sau said the government allowed improper importations to flourish in Mexico, and now they're punishing people who need those cars. Instead, authorities should keep their focus on preventing cars from entering Mexico illegally to begin with, she said.
Like Gonzalez, she’s waiting for President López Obrador, or AMLO, to legalize these cars. It's with that hope that she started an organization called AMLOPAFA to help protect chocolate cars in Hermosillo.
AMLOPAFA is one of many civil associations that register improperly imported cars in Sonora. They can’t provide official legal status or protection, but there’s an understanding that cars that join these organizations won’t be the target of enforcement efforts.
"A lot of times is a gentleman's agreement," said Gamaliel Cañedo, who leads another association that's been dedicated to protecting carros chocolates for 22 years.
"As long as there are people with a vehicle here in Hermosillo, we'll register it and we'll help protect it," he said.
He doesn't oppose the current crack down on new and luxury cars, he said. But the biggest factor pushing Sonorans to buy cars north of the border is a struggling economy.
As long as families need access to cheap cars to make ends meet, he said, there will be professionals buying cars at auction and bringing them south; families looking for steals in Tucson and Phoenix; and relatives driving down for the holidays and leaving their old car behind for their loved ones.
"So there will always be more cars entering Mexico," he said.
Carros chocolates aren't going anywhere.