What are the “chocolate cars”, the huge contraband border market with the US that Mexico wants to regularize

“Beautiful 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe just arrived from the USA,” reads an ad on the Facebook for sale site.

The gray, South Korean-made, off-road-style vehicle, “great, economical on gas,” is being offered by Ricardo for $47,000 pesos (about $3,330) in Tijuana.

In the same Mexican city bordering the United States, a Jeep Cherokee is for sale, according to another notice. From 2015 and with 94,000 km in tow, Mony put a higher price on it: $9,500 dollars.

It is “imported”as are the pick-up The 2002 Ford Sport Track or the 2005 Ford Mustang sports car that is now waiting for a buyer in Rosarito, a spa city in the state of Baja California, about 10 miles south of the border.

They are what in Mexico are known as “chocolate cars” and constitute a “huge market”Guillermo Rosales, executive president of the Mexican Association of Automotive Distributors (AMDA), tells BBC Mundo.

“A business that moves millions of pesos.”


The chocolate thing is a deformation of “crooked”crooked, jagged.

It refers to what they are old models illegally taken from the United States to Mexico —without the corresponding paperwork or having paid the federal import taxes—, where they are sold, even though they are not authorized to circulate in the country.

“We prefer to say automotive smugglingRosales says.

“Because they are smuggled across the border, with all the practices that this implies and specialized organizations behind it,” which acquire the vehicles at auctions in the United States at a very low price, he explains.

Though not always.

“In many cases they are the fruit of Mexican migrants who went to the US.they bought a vehicle there, they returned to their country of origin in it and left it here for their father, their uncle, ”Carlos Iván Rodríguez, the leader of the National Union of Social and Civil Associations, explains to BBC Mundo ( UNO) from Mexico, which is supporting the vehicle regularization process.

“Are a means of transport that, although used, is still in excellent condition for Mexicans who need it to go to work, etc., “he continues.

Alberto Barrera-Enderle, a professor at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) and an expert in the history of vehicle smuggling on Mexico’s northwest border, acknowledges that it is a combined practice, although the organizations that operate today “are small cells and it is more of a personal phenomenon”.

Decades of cross-border practice

Automotive smuggling between the two countries was born with the democratization of the automobiles decades from 30-40says Barrera Enderle.

“The demand of the middle class grew, also in Mexico, but the local production did not respond to it: there was little and it was expensive. So for the northern border states the Better option it was bring the cars from the United States, the main producer world. There were more models, more variety, better prices”, he explains to BBC Mundo.

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Cars at a Mexico City service station in the 1940s.

“So cars started to get into Mexico across the border, first as an ant operation and later with the participation of organized crime. The porosity of the border helped, and in parallel, the rise in car theft began in the US to bring them to Mexico”, he continues.

“It was very important and a serious problem at the national and even binational levels, but although it was still strong in the 1980s, it has ceased to be the attractive business it used to be for organized gangs,” he says.

“Today the big organized crime organizations have moved away, because the public these cars are aimed at is people without resources who cannot pay much for them. Before, perhaps the market was rich people, the elites, who were sold luxury cars. Now it is more lucrative for them to traffic arms, migrants, drugsthe main merchandise of these and that generate great profits”.

Lines of cars at the San Ysidro border crossing.

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Whoever they are, now, as at the beginning of the phenomenon, those who have acquired these cars drive them to Mexico through the Steps border.

They do so camouflaged among the thousands of drivers who daily cross the control line to the south, returning from work or school, after a day of shopping or those who come to visit relatives or go sightseeing.

“In that direction (from the US to Mexico) the cars are hardly inspected and if it is done, that is where corruption can come into play,” Rosales points out.

The hook, the price

Once in Mexican territory, they pass into the hands of relatives or are put up for sale.

They advertise on the internet, in local newspapers, with billboards, a price between 30 and 50% lesss than that of second-hand cars that are sold on a regular basis.

While a used truck in the formal market can cost more than $200,000 pesos ($10,000 dollars), an imported one can be purchased for less than $140,000 pesos (less than $7,000 dollars).

“These prices are of great help to many and that is why they buy them, even knowing that they entered the country irregularly,” says Rodríguez, from UNO.

With that same hook, Ricardo, who offers the “beautiful Hyundai Santa Fe model 2003 just arrived from the USA”, has sold up to 450 cars, so it can be counted on his profile on the Facebook sales site.

“Despite constituting contraband, they are not sales that occur in a hidden way, in clandestinely agreed appointments. It is carried out openly, in public places such as vacant lots, parking lots or streets that are known by word of mouth,” explains Rosales.

It is an open secret. “Look, that’s a chocolate,” journalist Manuel Ayala told us when we were reporting at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing.

“In Tijuana, the joke is very common that we all know a guy who brings cars from the United States,” he told us.


By their very nature, the exact number of “chocolate cars” circulating in Mexico is unknown, especially in the northern border states.

The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador estimates the figure at more than two million.

And after three years of shuffling the idea, it has been proposed to put them in order.

The President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

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The President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

AMLO, as the president is known, advanced it in his morning conference, “la mañanera”, on October 13.

“Over the weekend I am going to sign an agreement to regularize the cars that are already in Mexico, irregular cars that are going to be regularized because they are sometimes used to commit crimes and there is no registry,” he said.

The commissioner of the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (SESNSP), Leonel Cota Montaño, would also insist on this idea, in some comments to the media: “In the northern states it was very recognizable that there are homicides that are committed in these vehicles, (that) are abandoned after a few blocks. And we are faced with the fact that there is no recognized owner, there is no origin of the vehicle. For them (organized crime) it was operationally very normal to do this type of practice.”

But AMLO focused on another aspect: “A permit will be given, possession of the vehicle will be recognized. And they are going to pay a fair amount, not excessive, because they also there are many people who use these cars because they do not have to buy an agency car and with those cars they take their children to school and carry out their activities”.

That weekend, on an official visit to Baja California, he assured that with the measure, up to $1,300 million pesos (about $64 million dollars) can be collected only in that border state.

The decree for the regularization of “used vehicles of foreign origin” was published in the Official Gazette of the Federation (DOF) on October 19.

After two modifications, today it allows citizens of 12 states to regularize their “chocolate cars”.

You can only one per person, presenting a document that proves your property and a signed manifest under oath to tell the truth, after passing a simple examination and pay $2,500 pesos (about $125 dollars).

They must be models from 2016 or earlier and luxury, sports and armored vehicles are excluded, as clarified on the page of the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System.

Initially scheduled until July 20, the validity of the measure has already been extended until September 20.

An SUV hit by gunfire during a shootout between armed men and police in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on January 18, 2019.

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When announcing the signing of the decree, AMLO mentioned that the regularization will combat the use of unregistered cars to commit criminal acts.

Until April 6 they had regularized 7,672 vehiclesaccording to data provided to BBC Mundo by the National Public Security System (SNSP).

Juan Sosa is one of those who started the regularization process in Jiménez, a municipality in the state of Chihuahua.

owns one pick-up from 2001, a Chevrolet Silverado model, his second car brought from the US.

“I bought it from a brother-in-law who lives in California”he tells BBC Mundo by phone.

“I want to regularize it to move freely through the state and in the country if possible.”

The critics

Carlos Iván Rodríguez, from UNO, assures that the citizens have welcomed the initiative, above all because the amount they must pay to put their vehicle brought from the US into order is “moderate and accessible”.

However, when they face the process they encounter all kinds of obstacles: “They struggle to generate an appointment on the internet, to pay, to locate a point to go to.”

In addition, the changes introduced to the original decree are generating a certain “uncertainty, restlessness, even some distrust,” explains Rodríguez, referring above all to the elimination of customs agents from the process.

“Vehicles regularized in Mexico cannot circulate in the US because the license plates of their place of origin are not removed, a procedure traditionally carried out by customs agents. And if they do – and many need to do it because they work there – the owners of these vehicles face, therefore, being fined, ”he points out.

Rosales, from AMDA, is more forceful in assessing the program and directly calls it a “failure.”

“Instead of serving as a solution, it has served as a factor that increases the introduction of contraband,” he points out, “and increases the number of obsolete vehicles.”

The industry representative warns that these cars, which previously remained in the hands of a single owner because they were not regular, once they are placed they will be able to circulate and be marketed.

Pollution in Mexico City.

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Representatives of the Mexican automotive industry insist that with the regularization, more old cars will enter the market, which will worsen the pollution problem.

With that, becomes a pollution and security problem focused on the border into a national one”and it impacts an industry, the automotive industry, that is barely rearing its head after the blow of the pandemic, he says.

Meanwhile, the sellers of “chocolate cars” have already adjusted to the new times.

“Beautiful Ford Sport Truck model 2002. Just arrived in perfect condition to regularize with the decree,” Ricardo clarifies in his latest ad uploaded to the Facebook market.

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