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Mich. LE agencies brace for more burglaries by South American ‘crime tourists’

The majority of the burglaries have been committed by groups of Chilean suspects who overstayed a 90-day visa; Detroit police say the burglars stake out homes for days in order to break in while they are unoccupied


Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard details what authorities have learned about “transnational gangs” involved in “high-end burglaries” in affluent Detroit suburbs during a Sept. 29, 2023 news conference.

Jakkar Aimery, The Detroit News/TNS

By George Hunter
The Detroit News

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Police in Metro Detroit are bracing for another round of burglaries by South American “crime tourists” who enter the United States through a visa waiver program and move from state to state stealing from upscale homes.

Recent crimes in Bloomfield Township and Northville Township were committed by the same network of Chilean gangs that was responsible for a series of Michigan break-ins last year, law enforcement officials said. Asian Americans have been disproportionately targeted, local police said, which mirrors trends in other states where the burglary gangs also operate.

Police say they’re able to connect the crimes to the designated South American Theft Group because of the gangs’ military-like tactics that include dressing in camouflage clothing while casing luxury homes, sometimes for weeks, and using electronics to jam alarm systems. They steal cash, jewelry and expensive purses, often breaking into safes, police said.

“We saw these gangs come to Bloomfield Township in February of 2022, and that crew was captured and linked to similar cases in Indiana,” Bloomfield Township Police Officer Nick Soley said. “We didn’t see any cases for a while, and then toward the end of the summer (of 2023), we got hit hard up until about Thanksgiving week.

“It quieted down for a while, and then, two to three weeks ago, we saw a reemergence of the gangs in Bloomfield Township and Northville Township,” Soley added. “We knew these gangs would be back, and we’re confident they are back. We think they’re going to stick around, so we’re definitely preparing for it.”

The burglars in the most recent Metro Detroit incidents have not been caught, although last year, police arrested three Chilean nationals in connection with similar home invasions in Bloomfield Township , Bloomfield Hills , Grosse Pointe Farms, Rochester, Rochester Hills, and Ada Township. Four Chileans also were charged in the armed robberies of jewelry stores at Oakland Mall in Troy and Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills last year.

All seven suspects entered the U.S. through a program that allows people to visit the country without visas, said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who, along with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, formed a task force in December aimed at combating the South American Theft Group.

Bouchard, a Republican, insists the crimes will continue unless the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden exempts Chile from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program that allows citizens from 41 countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without visas. The burglary gang members stay beyond the 90 days, using fake identification cards that are provided by colleagues who are already in the United States, according to Bouchard and other law enforcement officials.

While police said most of the break-ins are committed by Chileans who abuse the ESTA program, other South American burglary gang members — whom authorities have dubbed “crime tourists” or “burglary tourists” — also enter the U.S. illegally from Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.

“This isn’t going to stop until something is done,” Bouchard said. “Communities across the country are getting hammered by these gangs. They hit us last year and then they came back again — and I’m sure they’ll be back again unless something is done. When we do make arrests, more people just come in through this program, or else they just walk through the open southern border. Aside from all the other security issues from having an open border, this is a huge problem.

“The (ESTA) program has a lower level of security,” Bouchard said. “You can apply online, and it’s a lower threshold than for getting a normal visa. After these people get here, they overstay their visas, get multiple IDs, and go around the country targeting these high-end neighborhoods.

Bouchard, who is vice president of government affairs for the Major County Sheriff’s of America, said he has asked the Biden administration to withdrawn Chile from the visa waiver program.

“People would still be able to come here from Chile to visit if they wanted to, but they’d have to get traditional visas,” Bouchard told The Detroit News. “The Biden administration is well aware of this problem because it’s happening all over the country. But I’ve not heard back from them.”

White House officials did not respond to an email seeking comment. Phone calls and emails to the Chilean Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Consulate of Chile in Detroit also were not returned.

Push to comply with requirements

Before Chile was added to the ESTA program in 2014, the nation entered an “Agreement on Enhancing Cooperation in Preventing and Combating Serious Crime,” in which Chilean officials pledged to share information with American authorities to help prevent criminals from entering the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security told The News that the agency is working with Chilean officials to tackle the problem.

“DHS remains deeply concerned with some individuals from South America who travel to the United States and engage in criminal activity, such as South American Theft Groups,” an agency spokesperson said in an email. " DHS and our federal partners have actively engaged with all levels of the Government of Chile to address this issue and have communicated the urgency of the situation.”

Last year, U.S. Reps. Mark Levin and J. Luis Correa, Democratic congressmen from California , sent a letter to Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chilean Ambassador to the United States, complaining that Chile isn’t holding up its end of the agreement of the visa waiver program, or VWP. California, since at least 2019, has had a rash of crimes committed by Chilean burglary gangs, according to a report in the Orange County Register.

“Across the country, but especially in Southern California, burglaries and other related crimes committed by individuals entering the United States under the VWP have been dramatically increasing,” the congressmen’s June 15, 2023 letter said. “We have deep concerns that Chile is neither meeting the information-sharing requirements for participation in the VWP nor complying with the agreement on enhancing cooperation in preventing and combating serious crime.

“We request you raise such concerns to the relevant entities within the Government of Chile and strongly urge you to meet the requirements of the VWP for continued participation in the program,” the letter said. “If you do not act to comply with such requirements, we are confident that Chile will be suspended or terminated from VWP participation.”

In its statement to The News, the Department of Homeland Security said Chilean officials have responded to the California congressmen by “improving operational cooperation with DHS offices in efforts to detect, deter, and prevent travel to the United States by known criminal actors.”

Chilean burglary gangs have operated in Washington, D.C, Arizona and Indiana, in addition to Michigan and California. Bouchard and Soley said there are an estimated 100 gangs operating throughout the U.S.

The gangs have also targeted Britain. The London-area Metropolitan Police, in 2017, set up “Operation Genie” to combat the thieves. Authorities said Chilean “burglary tourists” were responsible for the 2020 break-in of English celebrity chef Marcus Wearing’s Wimbledon home. The thieves got away with about $40,000 in jewelry, police said.

Bouchard said one Oakland County heist netted the burglars $4 million in cash and jewelry.

“They were pulling $1 million a week out of Oakland County for a while there,” he said.

Chileans charged

In December, Oakland County Sheriffs and the Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office formed the Southeast Michigan Collaborate, Arrest and Prosecute, or SEMCAP, which is made up of federal and local law enforcement agencies, to combat the South American Theft Groups.

The task force in December arrested three Chileans who were charged in connection with a series of home invasions across Oakland, Wayne and Kent counties. Jeremy Martinez, Ignacio Ruiz-Saldias and Tamara Ruiz-Saldias, who were charged with multiple Michigan burglaries, will be tried locally, although they will first serve the remainder of the two-year sentences they were given after pleading guilty to a series of burglaries of high-end homes in Indiana.

None of the three defendants are listed in Michigan’s court system, and it’s unclear whether they’ve retained attorneys related to the local charges.

“These defendants are currently incarcerated in the State of Indiana,” Nessel spokesman Danny Wimmer said in an email. “Upon completion of their time in jail, expected later this year, they will be extradited back to Michigan to face the charges issued by this department. At that time, they will be arraigned on those charges, and they will appear to you in the court system.”

Joshua Kocher, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in Hamilton County, Ind. , said because the defendants were given time served and have only a few months left on their two-year sentences, they’re being held in the Hamilton County Jail instead of being processed through Indiana’s prison system. When their sentences are over, they’ll be extradited to Michigan, he said.

In August, four Chilean nationals were charged in Oakland County with armed robberies earlier that month of the MJ Diamonds store at the Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Auburn Hills and the Macy’s store at Oakland Mall in Troy. Bouchard said all four defendants had abused the visa system.

Attorney Eric Wilson, who represents Hernan Parraquez-Mondaca, one of the four people charged in the jewelry store robberies, said he just received the case and has only spoken once with his client through an interpreter. Attorneys for the other defendants did not return phone calls.

Kocher said investigators from the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office were able to get information about the South American burglary groups from interrogating gang members who were arrested by police in Indiana.

“We caught a couple people red-handed, and we flipped them and got them to break down the process,” Kocher said. “They’ll start up a cell and put their own team together, and then go recruit more people. They were targeting a lot of Asian business owners; they’d follow them home from their places of business and stake out their houses to get everyone’s schedules.”

Who has been targeted in Michigan

Bouchard said Asian Americans have made up a disproportionate number of robbery victims in Michigan.

“Lots of times, certain ethnic groups own businesses, so these gangs may be thinking they’re bringing the proceeds home,” he said.

Northville Township Deputy Police Chief Matthew MacKenzie said he saw the same pattern in the first of the string of burglaries that happened in his jurisdiction.

“We think this group was potentially tied to targeting Asian-American business owners in some of the earlier cases, although we think they’ve branched out since, and aren’t just focusing on those individuals,” MacKenzie said.

Brian Gao, president of the Detroit Chinese Business Association, said he hadn’t heard of Asian American homeowners being targeted by the South American gangs. Phone calls and emails to other Metro Detroit Asian American advocacy groups were not returned.

While most of the burglaries have occurred while the homeowners were gone, MacKenzie said there was a recent case in Northville Township where the resident surprised the gang.

“Since these gangs will watch a house for days to get people’s patterns, they usually break in when nobody’s home, but we just had a case in late March where the homeowners were home,” MacKenzie said. “The homeowner had one of those motion detector systems, and when the man got an alert on his cellphone and started turning lights on, the burglars took off pretty quick. We’re lucky nobody was hurt.

“We have no leads,” MacKenzie said. “This has been happening all over the place. So we’ve been working with other agencies to try to piece it all together.”

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