In an effort to reduce auto thefts, the Clinton administration is planning a major effort to persuade Central American governments to seize stolen cars smuggled from the United States and return them, a State Department official said this week.
With an estimated 20 percent of the 200,000 stolen vehicles smuggled out of the United States each year ending up in Central America, administration officials say they hope that their effort will make at least a modest impact on auto theft in the southwestern states.
Depending on how their proposal is received, they say, they hope to extend their efforts to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries before the end of 1995.
"It's been too easy to drive over the borders with these cars," Anne Patterson, deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said on Wednesday. She said that preliminary diplomatic overtures to El Salvador and Belize on a retrieval program had been welcomed and that contacts with Latin American police departments had generally improved, particularly in El Salvador.
The administration has drafted a treaty that it will present to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in January and February. It would require each country to notify American Embassy officials within 60 days after its officials seize a vehicle they believe to have been smuggled from the United States.
If Washington believes a smuggled car has been seized or impounded by officials in one of the Central American countries, that government would be required to respond and turn over the vehicle.
The expenses incurred from returning, towing, storing and maintaining a recovered vehicle would be paid by the owner or his insurance company. Unclaimed cars would be come the property of the Central American government and could be sold to help finance modernization of police forces.
"I think the treaty is a tremendous step forward," said W. Joseph Pierron, director of Latin American operations for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a group financed by large insurance companies to fight auto theft and fraud. "It is an absolute necessity if U.S. owners are to have any chance of recovering stolen property from that region."
Mr. Pierron noted that a similar treaty with Mexico had helped officials track down 5,000 stolen cars in Mexico last year, of which about half were returned to the United States. By comparison, only 500 stolen American cars were located in all of Central America, and few of those were returned to their owners.
An estimated 1.5 million vehicles were stolen in the United States in 1993. Of the 600,000 that were not recovered, one out of every three was smuggled abroad, according to government and auto insurance officials.