Den of thieves

October 15, 2009
Three people of a car accessory theft gang detained by the police in Ho Chi Minh City

Stealing and outright robbery are becoming more common in Ho Chi Minh City as the market for stolen property grows unabated.

External rear-view mirrors have topped the list of stolen objects since late last year and many robbers are brazen enough to rip the mirrors off moving cars, most notably in districts 1, 4, and 7.

A bank officer who wished not to be named said a motorcyclist had torn off a US$600 mirror from his new BMW in August as he was slowing down on Nguyen Tat Thanh Street.

“That’s robbery, not stealing,” he said.

“It happened right in front of me but I couldn’t do anything. Had I chased after him, I could have caused an accident or a traffic jam.”

The loss is harder to bear as insurance companies refuse to offer protection anymore.

The director of an insurer in District 1, speaking to Thanh Nien on condition of anonymity, said his firm had insured car parts against theft in the past but it had proved a loss maker and been discontinued.

The parts often turn up for sale in front of Dan Sinh Market in District 1 or along Hung Vuong Street in District 5, so it’s unsurprising when the police say that many market vendors fence stolen vehicle parts.

The markets along Hung Vuong Street specialize in contraband headlights and rear-view mirrors for cars, while Tan Thanh Market in District 11 and the Sat Bridge in District 1 are the places to go for motorbike parts.

As most vehicle parts are imported, these markets have an advantage over legitimate retailers in that they offer instant service whereas the latter must place an order and wait for delivery from abroad.

It’s ironic that some victims have no choice but to go to these markets and buy their own property back.

The police department’s theft and robbery unit won’t even hazard a guess as to the value of the stolen goods that change hands in the black market.

Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the HCMC Police Department, said a clampdown on pawnshops as well as shops selling vehicle parts and cell phones was needed to stop the crime wave.

In late August, police arrested 40-year-old Nguyen Tan Thanh, owner of the Kim Hung gold shop in District 8, in connection with a gold robbery in Nha Be District, but such arrests are few.

Being knowingly in possession of stolen property is a crime in Vietnam, but police say many people escape being charged simply by feigning ignorance of where the goods come from.

It’s not quite that simple, according to chief market monitor Nguyen The Thong, whose unit is authorized to inspect any shop in the city and call in the investigators if the shopkeeper fails to produce the appropriate documentation for any item in stock.

Trouble is, nothing really develops from there as a shopkeeper without proof of purchase can claim the item in question was bought from someone who no longer wanted it or who had found it lying in the street.

“Most of the time, a paltry fine is imposed that the shopkeeper is happy to pay,” Thong said.

He said it was reasonable for people to suspect the thieves were being protected by the market watchdogs but in actual fact they were simply too cunning for the authorities to catch.

Every time the market monitors begin to investigate suspicious vendors in one area, everyone everywhere lies low until the heat dies down, Thong said.

Early this month, several market vendors were approached with a request for certain motorbike parts not on display, and agreed to supply them if the price was right.

Since the middle of 2008, the HCMC People’s Court has sent many gangs of young thieves to prison, while most of the fences and other middlemen have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Presiding Judge Bui Hoang Danh said the Criminal Code allowed for stiffer penalties for receivers of stolen property than for the thieves themselves. “But it’s the investigators’ job to make these dealers admit their guilt,” he said.

A victim in District 1 told Thanh Nien even she could tell whether goods for sale were legitimate or stolen. “It’s weird that some shopkeepers don’t feel the least bit suspicious,” she said.

Lawyer Nguyen Thanh Cong of the HCMC Bar Association agreed. “We have the laws so we need the authorities to get tough.”

Cong said the experience and determination of the investigators in charge would determine whether the guilty were caught.

Reported by Thanh Nien staff

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