LAHORE - Several organised gangs are active in the booming business of auto-lifting in big cities of the Punjab province where cops are unable to control vehicle-theft.

Every year, more than 20,000 people are deprived of their vehicles either by thieves or robbers from across the province. Police recover less than 10 percent of the total snatched or stolen vehicles while thousands of cases are declared as “untraceable” and disposed of after completion of legal formalities.

The ringleaders involved in the bustling business are well connected, having links in big cities, border districts, and even in other provinces. They are backed by influential persons, government officers, and police officials in “wheeling dealing.”

Background interviews with police officers, car-dealers, arrested thieves, and victims revealed a pathetic situation on part of law enforcement agencies.

The Anti-Vehicle Lifting Staff, a special wing of the provincial police supposed to deal with auto-lifting cases, was seen more interested in “keeping stolen cars in custody” rather than hunting down criminals.

A senior police official described the ringleaders involved in auto-lifting business as “well- connected” with their bases in border districts and areas out of the Punjab police access. The officer, who spoke to The Nation on the condition of anonymity like others interviewed for this article, said the police have a limited anti-vehicle lifting staff to investigate thousands of cases.

The provincial police had reported more than 27,000 cases of vehicle-theft in 2013. The department, the same year, had declared as many as 12,000 cases as untraceable.

Auto-lifters are stealing cars with impunity from across the proving as police have witnessed a steep surge in the incidents of car-theft in recent years. Frequently, vehicles are being stolen from outside wedding halls, restaurants, shopping malls, and even on the hospital premises in the big cities.

More than 45,000 vehicles were either stolen or snatched away at gunpoint from different districts of the province during the past two years. The provincial police had decaled at least 18,000 cases of auto-lifting as untraceable in 2014, and 2015.

Mr Javed, who was deprived of his car in 2012 in Lahore’s Johar Town, says he has lost all hope in police and don’t think that the police will be able to trace his car. “I have lost all hope that my car will be recovered. Cops have no time to investigate the case,” said the 37-year-old man who rides a two-wheeler since his car was stolen from outside a restaurant in J-II block Johar Town.

It was also learnt that the old vehicles are dismantled in the underground markets in the big cities while the new cars are driven to border districts and other province from the Punjab. An organized gang comprises at least three to five men, who take part in the operation to steal, transport, and sell the stolen vehicle.

A young man recently arrested by Lahore police for his involvement in dozens of car-theft cases told this reporter at a detention center in the city that he was working as a transporter for a racket. “I was paid Rs 30,000 after I handed over a latest model car to a ringleader on the outskirts of Peshawar. The thief who drove away the vehicle was paid Rs 10,000 in Lahore as he delivered the car to another man”.

Another auto-lifter in police custody disclosed to The Nation that the lower subordinates of the police are part of the problem. “Our partners in uniform help us evade police raids and search at check-points”.

Since the recovery ratio in car-theft cases is below ten percent per year, only a few victims get back their vehicles after going through a tough exercise.

Ahmed is among the lucky ones. “Six months ago, I was at a shopping mall with my wife when my car was stolen away from outside. I got back the car because of the tracker installed in it.” The man says he had to pay bribe to the policemen in fulfilling the legal matters to get the car’s possession. “When I found my car, many parts were missing in it, and its engine was seized. I had to pay another Rs 40,000 to a mechanic to get the engine overhauled.”

Police investigators say that a number of gangs are in this business that involves less risks but high profits. “There are many gangs that lift vehicles and dispose them of in the northwest Pakistan or dump the vehicles in the local scrap market,” a police officer said.

Also, the stolen vehicles are bought by the so-called scrap-dealers who run clandestine workshops at Lahore’s Bilal Gunj market. They have at their disposal a battery of workers capable of completely dismantling a vehicle within an hour. They first destroy the engine and chassis numbers to evade detection, the officer said. “The anti-vehicle lifting staff last year seized dozens of vehicles with tampered engine or chassis numbers in Lahore.”

Auto-theft gangs employ a range of modus operandi to maximise their profits. Some steal vehicles as per the specific demand of their clients while others steal a particular make that is popular in areas where they have good links with the receivers.

As victims complain the police do not take auto-lifting cases more seriously, cops say the owners must adopt preemptive safety measures to protect their properties.

“I wonder, people buy luxury vehicles on high price but they don’t get installed affordable security gadgets,” an investigator commented.

In previous cases, vehicles stolen from Punjab were found registered with the transport authorities of other provinces. The problem can be resolved only through computerisation of record and networking of data, according to experts. Tracking electronic chip can also been implanted in costly vehicles.