Los Angeles, CA – Over 80 firearms have been stolen from cargo trains during the mass looting in the Lincoln Heights rail yards in recent months, according to police.
“This is bigger than we thought,” Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Captain German Hurtado told the Los Angeles Times. “They aren’t just stealing shoes and stuff. This is an organized crime to the level they are stealing guns.”
LAPD detectives have determined the gun thefts were spearheaded by a gang from Los Angeles’ East Side, according to the paper.
Officers arrested three suspects in August of 2021 and found them in possession of brand-new handguns, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Investigators traced the firearms and discovered they were part of a 36-gun shipment that was being transported via train to Tennessee, according to police.
One of the suspects allegedly told detectives he had purchased his gun on the street after they were pilfered from a cargo train in Lincoln Heights, the Los Angeles Times reported.
He also allegedly mentioned he couldn’t afford the shotguns that were also up for sale, according to investigators.
Not long after, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents and LAPD officers arrested two suspects who were in possession of two of the shotguns the other suspect had told police about, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The guns were traced back to a missing shipment of 46 shotguns, according to police.
At least 82 guns have been confirmed stolen from the Lincoln Heights railyard so far, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Only a handful have been recovered.
Investigators have no idea how many other shipments may have been stolen from the cargo trains.
“I’ve got 24 years in LAPD, ex-military, secret clearance and I have to wait 10 days to get a new firearm and these guys are going into these containers with no locks and getting guns,” Capt. Hurtado said. “These guns were unguarded, unprotected… God knows how many guns have been stolen that way.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom made no mention of the stolen firearms when he held a press conference at the Lincoln Heights area Union Pacific Railroad tracks on Jan. 20.
The site was strewn with debris and litter stretching as far as they eye could see, video footage showed.
Newsom even apologized for blaming the situation on gangs.
“This is not one-off. This is organized theft,” the governor declared. “These are organized gangs of people that are coming out.”
He then quickly corrected himself, asking gangs to forgive him for inadvertently speaking of them with disapproval and contempt.
“Forgive me for saying ‘gangs,’ that’s not a pejorative,” he said, according to The Washington Times. “They’re organized groups of folks that move from site to site.”
Newsom said looters are “arrested as if they’re individuals” who “are not connected to the whole.”
“We need to change that,” he added.
Newsom seemed to be even more shocked over the condition of the railway after he viewed it in person.
“It looked like a third world country, these images, the drone images that were on the nightly news,” he said, according to the Daily Mail. “I took off the suit and tie and said I’m coming because I couldn’t take it. I can’t turn on the news anymore. What the hell is going on?”
News of the gun thefts broke last week, when LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the civilian Police Commission about the issue, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Ammunition might have also been stolen in the train lootings, police said.
The LAPD is also looking into whether or not the Aug. 16 murder of 34-year-old Leopoldo “Boxer” Esquivel is connected with a batch of stolen firearms, according to the paper.
Esquivel, allegedly a member of the Metro 13 gang, died from gunshot wounds to his head and body.
Multiple law enforcement sources said he was killed over a disagreement about the stolen guns, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Union Pacific declined to comment on the issue of the stolen firearms due to the ongoing “active criminal Investigation,” according to the paper.
“We can tell you that, like all railroads, we carry a variety of goods and commodities, and we work closely with our customers, state and federal regulators and others to ensure the safety and security of all the commodities that we transport,” a Union Pacific spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times.
“We need the support of our law enforcement partners, especially their expertise and investigative skills in addressing the rise of organized criminals targeting our trains in L.A.,” the spokesperson added.
Union Pacific California Director of Public Affairs Adrian Guerrero issued a letter to progressive Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon back in December, begging him to follow through with prosecution of the cargo thieves who have been wreaking havoc on the trains moving through the area for months, according to the Daily Mail.
“Not only do these dramatic increases represent retail product thefts — they include increased assaults and armed robberies of UP employees performing their duties moving trains,” Guerrero wrote, according to The Western Journal.
“These individuals are generally caught and released back onto the streets in less than twenty-four hours,” he noted in the letter. “Criminals boast to our officers that charges will be pled down to simple trespassing – which bears no serious consequence.”
Thefts from Union Pacific trains in Los Angeles County have soared by 160 percent over the past year, according to the railway company.
Criminals have been breaking into the train cars, stealing content from inside packages, and discarding boxes and packing material onto the ground, causing a massive pileup of debris.
The organized thefts began about seven months ago, after the “Defund the Police” movement resulted in fewer officers on the streets, one resident told the Los Angeles Times.
Robert Vega, who lives in the area, said it became commonplace for him to see thieves using metal-cutting tools to pry their way into the railcar containers.
“You could see sparks flying,” Vega told the Los Angeles Times. “I can come out at night and there are trucks loading up. It’s insane.”
“They are doing a cleanup today, but nothing is going to change unless they deal with train pirates,” he added.
Newsom said many of the items stolen from the trains end up being sold online, The Washington Times reported.
“I promise you, all of you — some of you have bought some of this stuff that was not in those boxes because they ended up on some online platform at a remarkably discounted price,” Newsom said.
He said investigators have recovered more than $2 million worth of stolen items so far.
“Some cases presented to our office by Union Pacific have been filed, such as burglary and grand theft, while others have been declined due to insufficient evidence,” Gascon’s spokesperson, Alex Bastian, said in response to Guerrero’s letter last month, according to the Daily Mail.
“We make charging decisions based on the evidence. Our office takes Union Pacific’s concerns seriously and hopes to discuss this issue more in the coming weeks,” Bastian added.
But on Jan. 21, one day after Newsom’s visit to the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, Gascon fired off a letter to Union Pacific blaming the company itself for the surge in thefts, the Daily Mail reported.
Gascon said the railway company filed fewer criminal cases with his office in 2020 than it did the year prior and he boasted that he has filed charges in “over 55 percent” of the cases filed with his office so far this year.
The prosecutor said Union Pacific should also do a better job with its own security force.
“[Union Pacific] does little to secure or lock trains and has significantly decreased law enforcement staffing,” Gascon wrote. “It is very telling that other major railroad operations in the area are not facing the same level of theft at their facilities as UP.”
Approximately 1,600 people work for Union Pacific in Los Angeles County, the Daily Mail reported.
The company also has its own police department, but local police and former Union Pacific employees have claimed the police force has been slashed due to budgetary issues, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Union Pacific from Yuma, Ariz., to L.A. has six people patrolling,” Capt. Hurtado told the paper. “It is like digging sand at the beach. We set up a task force. We are making an arrest and then we see a quarter of a mile down the track someone else taking merchandise.”
A Union Pacific spokesperson told The Washington Times the company is “grateful to our partners, including the Governor of California, law enforcement agencies including [police, the sheriff’s office and highway patrol], and our customers including UPS, that are standing with us.”
She said Union Pacific has bumped up the number of special agents on the ground in Los Angeles County, and that it has also increased its use of “drones, specialized fencing, and trespass detection systems” in an effort to “combat this criminal activity.”
Guerrero said the lack of action from California government officials has been “incredibly disappointing and frustrating,” The Western Journal reported.
“But that’s the reality of what Union Pacific has been facing over the past year, and it’s helping us shine a light on this issue,” he said. “I think it’s a call to action for a number of stakeholders involved in this issue because … there are a number of folks being impacted by this.”