Some parts of the train tracks in Los Angeles look like a tornado. Ripped cardboard boxes, packaging materials and plastic envelopes from Amazon or UPS – relics of robbed container trains – have been piling up for weeks, especially along the rails through Lincoln Heights in the north-east of the skyscrapers in downtown. The looters strike as soon as the trains slow down as they travel through the city or are parked on the rails. The thieves open the containers with bolt cutters and search through hundreds of packages within minutes. Particularly popular: electronics, fashion, corona tests and toys.

“In Los Angeles County, the number of robberies has increased dramatically in recent months. About 90 containers are now being broken into every day," Lupe Valdez, a spokeswoman for the Union Pacific (UP) railroad company, told CBS. In addition to the “Cargo Thefts”, organized robberies are also increasing in California. In late November, nearly 20 hooded young men used sledgehammers to smash the window of luxury department store Nordstrom at The Grove shopping complex in Los Angeles' Fairfax District, looting the glass cases within minutes. A few days later, a group raided another branch of the department store in neighboring Canoga Park. A few weeks later, the Los Angeles County Sheriff reported a robbery at a Lakewood hardware store,where the robbers stocked up for future crimes – with sledgehammers, crowbars and wrenches.

Northern California has also been rocked again and again for months by the raids known as "Smash & Grab". In late November, nearly 80 hooded men pulled up in front of a department store in Walnut Creek, east of San Francisco, blocked the street with their cars and, in minutes, carried out about $200,000 worth of clothing, shoes and jewelry. That same weekend, other robberies erupted in neighboring towns such as Hayward and San Jose, with the perpetrators threatening store clerks with guns and pepper spray. In downtown San Francisco, on posh Union Square, hooded men plundered branches of luxury brands such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton. Meanwhile, Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk temporarily closed off access roads to shopping malls.At least in the run-up to Christmas he wanted to prevent further raids.

crime downgraded

Many Californians attribute the crime wave to reforms like Proposition 47. To relieve the Golden State's overcrowded prisons, politicians and prosecutors proposed in 2014 that crimes such as shoplifting, grand larceny and fraud under $950 be downgraded to misdemeanors. In Los Angeles, law enforcement was further complicated in early 2021 when District Attorney George Gascón took office. The lawyer, who had already supported Proposition 47, spoke out at the time against the consideration of criminal records and against additional imprisonment for gang membership in convictions. During the pandemic, with an unprecedented number of online orders, Gascón's lax regulations have become a problem, especially for freight forwarders and rail companies like Union Pacific.Despite having their own guards along the tracks, the looting continues.

“We arrest people and hand them over to justice. To date, however, we have not heard of a single charge," said UP spokeswoman Valdez. The day after the arrest, the looters were free again and tampered with containers again. "Law enforcement in Los Angeles resembles a revolving door." Following a train derailment a few days ago, which may have been caused by looting trash, Union Pacific is considering removing Lincoln Heights and other raid areas from the rail network.

Governor Gavin Newsom has joined the debate about organized store robberies. After vowing to crack down on "criminal flash mobs" in the future, he promised the Golden State police departments a total of $300 million over the next three years. “There are no more excuses. We need to do more," Newsom told ABC.

According to estimates by the National Retail Federation, the "Smash & Grab" robberies cost American retailers about $700,000 per billion in sales.

The stolen goods, often designer fashion, handbags and power tools, are later offered online.

Nordstrom, Best Buy and two dozen other retailers are now demanding legislation that would remove the anonymity of online sellers.

Meanwhile, operators of Californian shopping centers are increasing the number of security guards.

"We are now coordinating our security concepts with the police and sheriff," said the company Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, which operates malls in Canoga Park, Sherman Oaks and Century City, among others.

"After all, it's about protecting sales staff and customers."