Facebook is proving to be a valuable tool for women-led crime organizations in Colorado
When Lesli Armenta’s* boyfriend began staying out all night, locking his phone and having secret conversations, she became suspicious. “I knew there was another woman,” she says. “There had to be.”
Listening to her inner-sleuth, Armenta began investigating her boyfriend’s sudden behavior change. What she uncovered wasn’t another woman, but that her boyfriend is a Jalaro in an à la carte auto theft ring that is both innovative and efficient requiring little overhead expense or even storage.
“I’d never heard of anything like it,” the Aurora, Colorado, resident tells Rooster. “I was relieved that it wasn’t another woman but shocked that he was part of something like this.”
Then she continued to dig further.
The system bears all the markers of a finely tuned Millennial enterprise: it’s technology based, simple, low start-up investment, little or no inventory, immediate delivery and tailored to customers who have been reared to expect immediate and low cost results.
Perhaps most striking: it’s managed almost exclusively by women.
“Initially we believed these units were limbs of larger crime organizations,” says a deputy from Arapahoe County who’s been investigating the cells. “We’ve discovered, however, that while the units interact with other organizations for drugs or as clients to move vehicles and guns, they appear to operate independently, answering to no one. The women at the top are truly at the top.”
The women go by different names on Facebook and other social media: La Desmadre (Miss Chaos); La Exploradora (Miss Explorer); La Incomprendida (Miss Misunderstood). These “Madres” as they’re called are typical “mothers” in that they start each night of work with a giant spread of food and plenty of nurturing (often with methamphetamines to keep the men coming back and motivated).
The Jalaros (someone who “pulls,” or steals, cars) are mostly typical family men. A quick look at their Facebook profiles shows them in wedding photos; with their children on their first days of school; on vacations; graduating college … normal things. “They aren’t typical thugs,” says Armante. “If I ran into one at WalMart I’d never have a clue any of them are involved in anything like this.”
Indeed, Facebook messages to the men indicate the Madres will actually rebuke them if they begin to look like stereotypical thugs. “Your clothes and that pinche hat make you look like you’re asking to get caught,” one message reads. “Never wear that again!”
“Many of the arrests we’ve made have been family men who attend church, coach their kids’ soccer games,” the deputy says. “One guy had paperwork from a school board meeting he’d gone to earlier that night.”
While the men spend their days sleeping, the Madres and their female assistants are busy taking orders from clients who’ve been granted a place on their friends’ lists. The orders are often detailed with maps to where trucks or motorcycles in the Aurora or Denver area are parked.
“When a customer spots a truck or motorcycle or even a car with rims they want, they Facebook message the Madre with a location and often a photo,” Armenta says. The Madre then compiles the assignments for the night and gives the lists to the Jalaros each evening with incentives for each one. “It’s kind of a competition,” she says dryly. “They get bonuses like a regular job … they even refer to it as ‘working’ to each other.”
“The fact that they consider it a legitimate job has been a challenge to us and marks a shift in the criminal mindset,” says the deputy. “Because of [this perceived legitimacy], they’re more bold and ‘work’ in plain sight. We’re used to looking for suspicious looking people and if they don’t look suspicious, we don’t check them out.”
“Well, we weren’t checking them out,” he concedes.
The men set out around midnight each night. The Jalaros who are assigned to strip cars go alone, but the ones who are supposed to pull trucks or motorcycles go in teams so one can drive the product back to the delivery location.
The locations change daily. Operating from mobile phones and laptops with WiFi, the Madres choose a new motel location to conceal their identity. As most motels offer free WiFi, IP addresses can change several times per week. “It makes the whole thing much more difficult to track,” Armante points out.
The customers are alerted by message once their order has been secured. Once payment has been received (usually through the Facebook Pay feature) they’re told where they can pick it up. “Often it’s also in plain sight — grocery stores, gas stations, motel parking lots, etc.,” Armenta, who’s been independently tracking the enterprise for several months, explains.
Facebook’s convenience features are excellent tools for the operation. It allows real time location sharing so the Jalaros can find one another, which is (unlike Google Maps) automatically deleted once sharing stops. It also allows quick online payments.
And because many of the phones the groups use are stolen from the vehicles, calls can be made through messenger rather than direct calling leaving no record of communications to the original owners’ cell phone bill. Operating on WiFi or HotSpot also makes location and tower pinpointing even more difficult.
Customers aren’t limited to just trucks and motorcycles, however. “Basically, they’ve expanded to anything a person is willing to pay for … rims, guns, bikes, computers, tools, even tile,” Armenta explains. “The Jalaros are also sometimes paid to deliver drugs, sort of like, ‘since you’re going to be in the area, anyway,’ kind of thing. Basically, they’ll hustle doing anything the Madres ask them to do.”
“Right now, especially in Aurora, we’re seeing a surge in the number of guns getting to the streets,” adds the deputy. “A lot more teenagers and felons especially. Not only in arrests and apprehensions where guns are present, but in actual live round shootings. Everyone’s read the news about shootings in Aurora and other Metro cities recently, and we … well I believe, especially … that these are all tied together.
“It’s like the late-‘80s all over again with drugs, teenagers, guns, terrorizing neighborhoods,” he continues. “A lot of it has to do with meth, a lot of it has to do with low wages, too, and frustration with a lot of things — I, personally believe, anyway.”
What makes it most difficult for authorities is the quickness technology provides. As the deputy explains, there are far more ways now to collect and disburse information than there was just a few decades ago.
The ingenuity of the process is in the fact the customer gets to “shop” and choose their “product” specifically. Gone are the days of chop shops and the need for dark hidden parking areas. Customers spot a truck or car they want and let the Madres know where it is. It’s generally delivered within hours.
To even further avoid suspicion, often these cars or motorcycles are sold back to the theft rings after a few weeks or months of use. They then ship some north to Canada, others for resell or south to Mexico. “It’s not a strictly ‘south of the border’ enterprise,” the deputy asserts. “Make no mistake, the perpetrators are most often American, and the customers are American, and they have (tentacles) across both our northern and southern borders.
“It’d be a grave misstep to focus our investigations based on nationality and that’s not effective to the public,” he explains.
Oddly enough, there have been several instances in which the vehicles are returned to the legal owner after extended time of use. “People wake up and go outside, and there’s their truck, parked in the driveway, as though it’s kinda just been there all along,” the deputy says with a laugh.
On the side, Armenta’s boyfriend does some freelance work like that too. “He has friends who know that he’s doing this and sometimes they’ll hit him up for a ‘rental’ for a night or a weekend, then return the car — usually to the original owner,” she explains.
The deputy and his department offer a few options to help mitigate someone’s exposure to the possibility of these kinds of theft. “Pay attention to people ‘casing’ your motorcycles and trucks ... even if, especially if, they don’t look like criminals,” he says. “Don’t leave valuables in your vehicle like cell phones or laptops because they can be reused by the units, and never, ever, under any circumstance, leave a gun in the vehicle — it can be used in the commission of a crime, later.”
So far, Armenta says her boyfriend doesn’t know she’s been privy to his entrepreneurial efforts. “He doesn’t know that I know anything and frankly I don’t really know what to do about all this,” she says. “This isn’t what I wanted from our relationship or what I meant when I said he needed to get a better job. This isn’t that. I almost wish it was another woman because I could at least handle that!”
Asked if she had intentions to report what she knows, she explains her reluctance. “It’s very dangerous because I’d have to testify and I don’t want to do that,” she says. “I don’t know what these people would do. But I’ve had my car stolen before, I know first hand how violating that is.”
The irony in the situation she explains: “So has he.”