cuffs, handcuffs
Photo credit: Alexander Nguyen

Two men allegedly involved in an auto theft scheme targeting Latinos are behind bars, while another suspect remains at large and is believed to be in the San Diego area, authorities said Wednesday.

Abel Chairez, 40, and Juan Echeagaray, 49, are accused of perpetrating the scam that netted around $475,000 from more than 17 victims. A third suspect, Salvador Mullaly, 52, has not been captured and authorities said he should be considered armed and dangerous.

According to the San Diego County Regional Auto Theft Task Force, the perpetrators posted job listings on social media sites, searching for Spanish- speaking drivers interested in transporting large sums of money from the San Diego area to Los Angeles County, often for supposed payments of several thousand dollars.

When an interested party called, the perpetrators — believed tobe  associates of an organized crime gang based in Mexico — made assurances that the purported driving job was legal and directed the victim to a meeting spot in southern San Diego County, generally near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Once there, the victim was told to surrender his or her vehicle so it could be loaded with money somewhere else. The perpetrator then took the vehicle — sometimes after displaying a gun — and immediately drove it into Mexico, never to be seen again by the owner, according to the task force.

Some of the victims of the scheme were subsequently contacted by the thieves, who told them to wire funds to a bank account if they want their autos back. Those who have agreed to the demand simply lost that money along with their vehicles, investigators said.

The perpetrators primarily targeted Los Angeles residents who owned late-model SUVs and pickup trucks, though not exclusively, the task force reported.

Echeagaray was arrested in May in connection with the alleged scam, while Chairez was arrested last Friday as he attempted to enter the United States at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, according to the task force.

Chairez, a U.S. citizen who allegedly hid in Mexico after the task force warned the public about the scam in early May, is slated to be arraigned Thursday.

A task force statement reads, “Notably, after the news media made the Latino community aware of the scam, there were no further victims. RATT Commander and California Highway Patrol Capt. James Portilla credits the media for making the community aware of this scam thus effectively preventing further victims.”

Meanwhile, any additional victims or anyone with information regarding Mullaly’s whereabouts was asked to contact the task force at 858-627-4000.

— City News Service