12/08/13 (written by cmolzahn) — On Monday, December 2, thieves stole a truck transporting radioactive material from a hospital in Tijuana traveling to a storage facility in central Mexico. Mexican authorities said the truck was stopped at a gas station in Tepojaco, Hidalgo when two gunmen forcibly removed the driver, tied him up, and drove away. After a two-day hunt, the truck and its materials were found in a rural area of the State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex).
Six suspects have since been arrested in connection with the theft, and are under medical observation as criminal proceedings move forward. The theft of the material, identified as cobalt-60, quickly drew international attention from the media as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. military leadership, although the likelihood of terrorist ties was quickly dismissed. Given the truck’s origin, destination, and where it was eventually located, there was a jurisdictional scuffle the day following the discovery of the material, but the federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) quickly took up the case, deeming it a federal crime.
The 60 grams of cobalt-60, which aside from its immediate health hazards has also been determined to cause cancer, had been used in a now obsolete radiotherapy machine, and was in a sealed container on the back of a Volkswagen Worker truck. The material was en route to the National Nuclear Research Institute (Instituto Nacional de Investigación Nuclear) in Maquixco, Edomex. The IAEA classifies cobalt-60 as “category 1,” the most dangerous in the agency’s classification system, in that these substances “can pose a very high risk to human health if not managed safely and securely.” It has been cited as a possible ingredient in a dirty bomb—a combination of radioactive material and explosives meant to disperse the material over a small area. Such a weapon would likely be intended more to induce panic in the populace than to cause widespread destruction or casualties. According to officials in Mexico’s nuclear safety commission, the thieves had removed the container from the truck and opened it, exposing themselves to the potentially deadly material.
It is clear that the thieves who stole the truck were not aware that it contained cobalt-60, much less how to use the material to fabricate a high-impact weapon. The truck was stolen in a corridor known for frequent vehicle thefts, with cargo trucks being common targets. Trucks are often equipped with tracking devices for this reason, but it has been reported that the GPS system on this truck was not functioning. Experts say that using cobalt-60 to produce a dirty bomb is quite difficult, and it appears unlikely that the thieves had any intention of doing so. The material was discovered roughly a kilometer from the truck removed from its protective casing, presumably by the thieves. It has also been reported that a local family removed the casing from the truck and took it to their house in hopes of selling it as scrap metal. Local residents reported seeing a truck dragging an object resembling a beer keg as several individuals walked alongside. In any case, the theft of the truck transporting cobalt-60 has raised concerns about the possibility of a more generalized threat of radioactive material being hijacked in Mexico and passed on to parties with the knowledge and motivation to pose such a threat.
Four days after the cobalt-60 was stolen, federal agents placed six individuals under arrest on December 6 in connection with the theft of the material. According to initial reports, federal police officers brought two individuals to the hospital, followed by the other four shortly after. Police say they suspect two of the individuals to be directly involved in the theft of the truck, while the other four are believed to be part of a criminal gang. Hidalgo’s Public Security Secretary Alfredo Ahedo said they arrested the men in possession of two semi-trucks that had been reported stolen. In an interview with Excélsior Televisión, Public Health Secretary Pedro Luis Noble said that following comprehensive exams none of the six individuals were found to have shown any effects from radiological exposure, though he emphasized that they should be tested again in a week. This is despite initial reports of a 16-year-old suspect arriving at the hospital with nausea, vomiting, and other signs consistent with radiation poisoning. Noble said that the six men, ranging from 16 to 38 years old, had admitted to coming into contact with the material, but that it was not clear whether they were responsible for the theft. The Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) took them into custody when the hospital upgraded their condition to stable. According to the most recent reports, five of the individuals remain in custody, while the PGR has extended the period for determining whether to bring formal charges against them to 96 hours from 48. The 16 year-old has reportedly been released.
In addition, the company in charge of transporting the material is also under investigation for possible negligence. The truck did not have a functioning GPS system, and was not accompanied by the requisite security detail, according to El Universal. Juan Eibenschutz, director of Mexico’s nuclear security authority (Comisión Nacional de Seguridad Nuclear y Salvaguardias, CNSNS), said that the company could lose the license granted to it by the CNSNS to transport nuclear material, and insisted that the protocols for safeguarding such material “are good,” and follow guidelines handed down by the IAEA. Eibenschutz said that the cleanup of the material would take days, given that they will be employing a remote controlled operation that will take time to plan and execute. In the meantime, the CNSNS has maintained that the cobalt-60 poses no health risks for local residents who do not come into direct contact with it.