Stolen Cars For Export: The Curious Case of Criminal Trading of Canadian Vehicles to West Africa

Guillermo Chas
A Canadian stolen car was tracked to Nigeria. Source: CTV News.

Criminal gangs operate like any legal company dedicated to the international trade of vehicles but with a considerable difference; the units they offer had been previously stolen. According to police data, in 2022, vehicle theft surpassed break-and-enters and became the second most committed crime in Toronto, Canada.

Comparatively, and not ignoring the fact that mobility restrictions due to the pandemic may have impacted these numbers, 6,518 incidents of this nature were reported in 2021. The next year, the figure grew by 44.8%, with 9,439 reported vehicle thefts in the most populous city in Canada. On the other hand, in Quebec, insurance companies went from paying $111 million Canadian dollars because of this crime in 2018 to $269 million in 2022. The numbers are eloquent and speak for themselves.

Nevertheless, the above only represents the first link in this transnational crime scheme. The mechanisms used to commit these illicit acts have been sophisticated and adapted to current times with today’s car hijacking occurring through remote door opening and closing systems that can be disabled by signal inhibitors, as well as by the convenient, but not so secure, push-to-start ignition mechanisms which are particularly vulnerable to theft.

The second stage involves vehicles being shipped abroad through international logistics freight services that cooperate with those criminal organizations and get profits for taking their part in the scheme. At this stage, not only are the abilities of the criminal organizations important, but also the ineffectiveness of public authorities to prevent the departure of hundreds of stolen vehicles through their ports.

This reality is astonishing since the vehicles are not shipped from hidden loading points. It cannot be ignored that exporting vehicles to a transoceanic destination is not the same as smuggling cigarettes or cell phones through poorly secured land border crossings. 

The Port of Montreal is one of the places that became an inert witness to the continuous departure of these stolen motor vehicles that are transported within containers destined for African countries. As such, customs and border services of departing countries should redouble their efforts to interrupt this crime in its embryonic stages as the conditions in the destination countries are much more favourable for the criminal groups behind the business due to their ability to easily penetrate through state shields and bribe officials. In this context, it cannot be ignored that while Canada occupies the 14th place in the Global Corruption Perception Index, Ghana and Nigeria – two of the main destinations of illegal cars – rank 72 and 150 respectively.

Cars ready to be shipped in a port terminal. Source: BreakBulk

A possible explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the attitude that customs authorities generally adopt by focusing more on imported goods than on those exported. The consequences of this type of vehicle trafficking are multi-sectoral. They affect the owners of the vehicles, the insurance companies that must respond to the insured, and the integrity of the states affected collaterally by corrupt practices and border and customs controls evasion. Furthermore, profits generated by the commercialization of these vehicles are often used to fund other illegal activities committed by the same organizations or their partners in crime, making this type of trafficking a prosperous funding source for further criminal ventures.

Consequently, the problem extends beyond the countries of origin, transit, and destination of the stolen goods, and takes on a global scope. For instance, the profits obtained from the sale of a car shipment in Ghana, may turn into financial aid to finance people trafficking from Vietnam to Thailand, or the trade of weapons from Russia to East Africa or the Middle East, as well as to terrorist acts in various parts of the world. That being said, there is no doubt that addressing this criminal phenomenon requires international cooperation and greater joint efforts from different actors – car producers, government agencies, and freight companies – who, by working together, can help to reduce vehicle theft and trafficking, protect citizens, and promote global security.

One such example are car manufacturers in that they can play a significant role in reducing vulnerabilities by improving vehicle security systems. Throughout investing in research and development, carmakers can develop more sophisticated unlocking technologies that make it more difficult to steal cars.

Canadian border agent. Source: CBC

Local security agencies, such as police forces to customs services, must also do their part to better fight against vehicle theft and trafficking organizations by improving their intelligence and surveillance capabilities to identify high-risk areas, routes and ports. These agencies should also establish intelligence-sharing agreements with other agencies to track down stolen vehicles. In addition, stronger border and customs controls can help to prevent the cross-border movement of illegal cars, particularly in spotted regions.

Finally, international transportation companies should implement effective compliance and ethics policies for their operations, including regular audits of supply chains and enforcing strict security protocols to prevent the shipment of stolen cars through their services.

  • What can Canadian authorities and stakeholders do to overcome this flagellum?
  • How could international organizations cooperate to combat these crimes and their consequences?
  • Is there a main actor responsible for the occurrence of these events, or are the responsibilities equally shared among different partakers?

Guillermo Chas graduated summa cum laude in Law from the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) and has a Master in Justice Administration from Rome University. He is currently pursuing a Master in Criminal Law and International Justice at Kennedy University & the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. At present, he works for the Federal Criminal Justice of Argentina. He can be reached on LinkedIn.


  1. Pingback: Crimen organizado transnacional: el curioso caso de los autos robados en Canadá que se venden en África Occidental – El Blog de Guillermo Chas

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Stolen Cars For Export: T…

by Guillermo Chas time to read: 4 min