The crime patterns began emerging in the last year: crews of thieves employing inventive techniques to gain entry and ransack scores of cars, homes and businesses in Southern California and across the nation.
As investigations and arrests ramped up, detectives noticed another key commonality: The suspects were Chilean and had gained entry into the U.S. with easily obtained visa waivers.
“It is a growing problem,” said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller. “They’re very sophisticated. It’s a hot zone in Southern California.”
Law enforcement has dubbed it “burglary tourism,” and it is thriving locally and around the world.
Last week, Simi Valley police, working with the California Highway Patrol and Ventura County deputies, arrested three Chilean men for multiple vehicle burglaries. Each was here on temporary waivers, police said. In January, four other Chilean men were arrested in connection with 20 home burglaries and other thefts from vehicles at golf courses in the same community.
A crew believed to be connected to a Chilean ring pried into a Laguna Niguel jewelry store last month, swiping more than $1 million in goods.
Similar crimes have been reported in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New York and other states as well as several European countries, the FBI said.
International crime rings are not uncommon, but authorities could point to no specific reason why the Chilean rings have been so successful.
Chile’s consulate general in Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment.
Javiera Rodríguez, a Chilean television journalist, said that some Chilean criminals were known to seek out wealthier nations.
“There are many Chileans who, being criminals here, travel abroad because they can obtain better treasures,” she said in a Twitter message. “In addition, they are very ingenious and create new forms of theft.”
One pattern worldwide is the ingenuity of approach: The men arrested in Simi Valley last week used a jamming device to prevent car owners from locking their vehicles, a news release said. The device interrupts the signal when car owners activate the lock on key fobs.
And the visa waiver makes it hard for police to learn the real identities of the crooks, investigators said.
The ESTA — Electronic System for Travel Authorization — visa waiver allows citizens from 38 countries to visit the United States for tourism, business, study or medical purposes for 90 days.
The streamlined visa waivers are good for two years and can be used for multiple entries. Applicants can apply for the waivers as late as three days before leaving the country, according to the website.
The federal government established the visa program in 2009 to provide U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security with the capability to prescreen travelers against numerous no-fly, criminal and terrorist databases, according to the program website.
Those holding the waivers don’t have to fill the more onerous requirements of regular visas, such as comprehensive applications, interviews at a U.S. Embassy and increased scrutiny.
So far, police have been unable to determine the number of heists, the value of items stolen across the region or how many people work in the ring.
The crews’ signature identifiers include fake passports and phony identification cards. They use rental cars, sometimes masked with paper license plates. After entering the rear of homes, the burglars typically barricade front doors, including those in gated communities with private security patrols.
Once inside, crews scour master bedrooms for jewelry, money, guns and safes. Homes with parks, trails or undeveloped land behind them are prime targets, police said.
Investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office peg the number of burglaries in the “hundreds.”
LAPD Capt. Donald Graham, commander of the North Hollywood Division, said it was common for homeowners to lose $30,000 to $40,000 in a heist. Officers are aware of at least 40 burglaries in the division and dozens more in other areas.
The crews break glass or pry open patio doors but will not spend minutes circumventing alarm systems, he said.
“It’s become very distinguished by the way they stack furniture against doors,” Graham said. “This is a wide organized-crime ring. We’re going to need help from other law enforcement agencies to shut them down.”
The crooks also steal paperwork and documents like passports so they can later create more fake identities, he added.
Detectives learned the crews are removing diamonds and other stones from jewelry to make the stolen goods harder to identify or trace.
Eimiller, the FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau had contacted its FBI representative in Santiago, Chile, for assistance. Local police agencies and the FBI cannot access criminal histories of foreign nationals and rely on help from FBI agents stationed in other countries, she said.
In the last eight months, authorities in London and Australia have made arrests to disrupt similar Chilean theft rings, according to published reports. Australian police say the syndicate stole more than $1 million in goods from stores and homes.
Ventura County Sheriff’s Det. Theodore Stern, lead investigator on the case, said the thieves had developed a “professional system” to strike homes that appear unoccupied. Investigators are working with the FBI to check records in Chile, he said.
“It's in the hundreds and hundreds,” he said about the thefts. “It’s a huge issue. They're taking advantage of our immigration laws. Officers are working hard to catch these guys.”
In Ventura County, burglars have immediately sold the property or shipped it back to Chile, Stern said. Deputies, he added, have recovered some of the valuables sold locally.
In March, the owner of Nuggets & Carats, the Laguna Niguel jewelry store, worked with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to set up a sting operation after burglars struck his store. They had cut the electricity, allowing batteries in the alarm system to drain, then returned 24 hours later to cut a hole in the roof before emptying display cases and a safe.
“They got everything my family worked for,” owner Brian Hassine said about the March burglary. “They cleaned us out.”
Last week, the same crew employed the same tactic. This time, the alarm company notified Hassine. Deputies were waiting when a man cut a hole in the roof. They moved in, but the suspect escaped through the roof of the large shopping center. Deputies stopped a black SUV associated with the crew but made no arrests. Officials said an investigation is ongoing but declined to discuss specifics.
Hassine said deputies at the scene told him the suspects were Chileans.
Last month, the city of Hidden Hills sent out 2,000 newsletters warning residents about 11 incidents in the western foothills of the San Fernando Valley.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department believes most, if not all, of the incidents are directly related to “Chilean Tourist Burglars,” the newsletter said.
In the January Simi Valley arrests, the men, ages 19 to 30, listed North Hollywood addresses and were arrested after officers conducted surveillance of them in Upland, police said.