5-12-2005 They stole our pickup!!!

Yes, it is true: we lost our pickup. What follows is an amazing story involving corruption, lies, arms, high tech tracking devices, airplanes, criminals, police and SALGA right in the middle.

First things first. Gige and I left Natal on Wednesday 16th of November and left the pickup and trailer in the hands of Coca. A transportation company came to pick them up on Friday morning. So far so good.

On Monday David send an email to the transportation company asking when we can expect the pickup and trailer in Porto Alegre. They send an email back immediately: it is going to take about 15 days. OK, Natal is not at the back door – actually it is 4089 km away – but we were slightly surprised that it was going to take that long.

The next day the story changed. In the morning David was called by the transport company: 'We tried to call you the whole day yesterday but could not find you. We are very sorry to let you know that yesterday while we were placing your pickup on our truck your pickup got stolen.' WHAT??? After the message settles in we realize that there are at least two strange things hidden in their story: 1) they could not find David, but did they not send an email yesterday? 2) if they were placing the pickup on the truck only on Monday, where had it been between Friday and Monday?

No time to get to the bottom of this right now. We had to call the insurance company immediately. The pickup is insured with Porto Seguro, the largest South American insurance company. Additionally it is equipped with a tracking device. The Porto Seguro contact person was very helpful and straight to the point. We should call 'LoJack' immediately. LoJack is the company that tracks down stolen cars equipped with a tracking device. It is chaos on the other side of the line, the LoJack man looks confused, can not find a pen to write down the data of the pickup etc. Finally he manages to find something that writes and starts taking notes. We call back to Porto Seguro, they contact a high chief in LoJack and now things start rolling.

In the afternoon we are called back: there are no antennas in Rio Grande do Norte that can detect the tracking device, a plane has to be launched from Salvador (Bahia) to start tracing the signal. In the mean while all the antennas in the country are activated to look for a sign of our pickup. By now the pickup could be anywhere. The search radios is large especially because we are not sure when the pickup got actually stolen. Was it really on Monday or is the company lying and was the pickup already gone on Friday?

At this point we find out that we are dealing with yet another company. The transport company that we contracted, subcontracted another company to execute the transportation of the first part of the route. Maybe the truck driver delayed in notifying his boss at the subcontracted company and this company postponed to inform the main transport company that subsequently waited before calling David. Or maybe the truck driver or the subcontracted company was in on the theft…

We could be looking at different scenarios. Very likely the pickup was already taken apart. The pickup could also be placed on top of another truck and could be heading for the boarder. Professional criminals switch of the battery in these cases which prevents the tracking device to send it signals. Just a while ago a pickup was stolen in Porto Alegre. It immediately disappeared from the radar to appear again 3 days later in Buenos Aires.

I stayed calm and focused on the fact that what was happening was terrible but no one got hurt and how ever this was going to end it was going to be a great story for the website!

I still have not mentioned that with the pickup also all the equipment inside the pickup was gone. All the sediment equipment of Andy, the fishnets, the anchors, my sleeping bag, my sandals, some electrical equipment and 23 other items (at least those were the things that I remembered) had disappeared. The future of the fish and the sediment part of the project was not looking pretty.

But there was hope. David told me a story about a friend of him that got his skydiving gear stolen. This is expensive stuff, but not easy to sell. This friend went to the principal police office, got some telephone numbers of bandits, called them offering ransom money for his equipment and in the end he got his gear back. Was this our future? Hmm, I could not picture Coca driving into a back alley of Natal dropping off a sport bag full of Reais in a previously coordinated garbage can sneakily observed by a heavily armed criminal who would quickly take the money after which Coca can pick up the Niederreiter corer and our multi mesh nets at some other part in town. I could just no see it happening.

I spend the afternoon trying to prepare some things for our Argentinean field trip but could not really get much work done. Printing out 30 more field forms seemed so useless without having a pickup. The insurance company already offered money to compensate our loss, but with the day value of the pickup we would probably not be able to find a used pickup so soon, not to mention a pickup as well equipped as ours was with special tires, wires and winch.

At night we were notified that unofficially the pickup had been located. The next day we called LoJack but they could not give us any news. The story of the unofficial localization was not confirmed and it was not until at the end of the day that we heard that the pickup had indeed been found. The pickup was parked in a garage next to a house in Natal. LoJack had already found this out yesterday and had immediately informed a police and in the mean while send a ground troop to watch the place so the criminals could not move the pickup unseen. Strange enough the police was not willing to cooperate in getting the pickup back. LoJack called Porto Seguro for help and they in turn called some high chiefs at the Ministry of I-don't-know-what who then called the policemen in charge after which they finally decided to move.

Incredible isn't it? Well, it gets worse. The police drives to the house, lets the thieves get away, confiscates our pickup plus another stolen pickup parked next to hours and consequently calls the subcontracted transporting company telling that THEY found the pickup and that they would be very willing to receive some kind of a 'thank you present' from either them or the owner… All of this is of course 'off the record'.

On the record the bureaucracy starts. The sheriff is not willing to let the pickup go that easy. He tells that the license plates of the pickup have been replaced by plates of Matto Grosso – this is the Brazilian state bordering Paraguay and Bolivia, one of them probably being the final destination of our pickup – and that the chassis number of the pickup has been erased. This complicates things…

We then notify Coca who offers to go to the police station the day after to have a look at the pickup and to see if the sampling equipment is anywhere around. The sheriff cancels his appointment with Coca and offers to meet first time in the morning the next day.

At the same time David spends the morning at the notary fixing a legal paper that permits Coca to act as a representative of the owner of the pickup. This can not be done within one day and the following morning we go together to pick it up and send the paper together with legal copies of David's ID to Coca. Some 4000 km away Coca spends the entire morning at the police office. The sheriff makes him wait until 12:30.

At last some good news. The pickup seems in the same state as that we left it in, a lot if not all of the equipment has been found and indeed the license plates have been changed but the chassis number is untouched.

Now, Coca needs a certified list with all the equipment that was in the pickup. Thinking of the memory games from my childhood I start making the list illustrated with pictures (because how am I going to explain a police officer which metal sticks belong to a sediment corer?). We get it certified at the notary and send it to Coca. After the weekend it arrives in Natal. Then it looks like even dark forces turned against us. Miraculously the certified copies form David's ID disappeared from the first envelope. Coca can not move without these papers so once again David drives down to the notary office.

By now 1.5 weeks past by and the pickup is still at the police office but I have good hope that it will be released this week. Then we have to wait until there is a truck coming down in this direction. I hope we'll have the pickup in time to get it fixed and ready to start our Argentinean campaign on the planned date. Whatever happens now, I think we yet again have been extremely lucky. Our expensive insurance paid off, we got everything back and once more have an incredible story to tell.

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