Article Thumbnail

‘Crime Tourism’ Is Befuddling Law Enforcement Across the Country

Since 2014, there’s been a surge in home burglaries throughout the U.S. in what authorities now believe is part of a highly sophisticated crime ring led by individuals from South America

On the evening of April 1st, a man walked into his Ventura County, California house only to discover that his home was being burgled. The homeowner hit one of the intruders as he fled the premises, and when a second man emerged, the homeowner confronted him, too, beating him into submission. The suspected burglar was identified by police as 43-year old Alexis Provoste Aranguiz of Chile. The other man, along with their getaway driver, was able to escape. 

In March, four other Chilean men were arrested on suspicion of a different burglary in Ventura County, this time in the town of Camarillo. According to the local sheriff’s office, in 2021, the county reported 100 similar crimes that were largely presumed to be the work of “South American theft groups,” which authorities have taken to calling “crime tourists.” 

This new crime trend was first reported by the Washington Post in January. The paper noted that the beginning of the sharp increase in crime tourists correlated with when Chile was included in a U.S. visa waiver program in 2014. The program is called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), and it allows prescreened travelers from 40 countries to enter the U.S. without requiring a visa. Now, authorities say that the U.S. has become a destination vacation for criminals looking for a big score. Soon after this crime trend was spotted, the Los Angeles Times began referring to the burglars as “South American theft groups” and other newspapers, like the San Jose Mercury News, called them “Chilean gangs.

What’s perhaps most concerning is that while the trend began eight years ago, it went largely unnoticed until around 2020. As law enforcement in the D.C. area started to track what was happening, they found that the burglars primarily targeted the homes of Middle Eastern and Asian victims, possibly reasoning that these families were more likely to keep expensive jewelry in their homes as well as large amounts of cash. Per the Post, because bail for nonviolent theft is often low, the suspect can fairly easily get bond and travel to another city to continue their crime spree (authorities theorize similar burglaries have taken place everywhere from New York to Georgia to Washington, D.C. to Texas to California). Plus, these crimes typically wouldn’t involve federal authorities. 

But as connections were made between such burglaries and the ones of homes in affluent, white neighborhoods in Silicon Valley and near New York City, they began to receive much more media attention. 

These traveling burglars aren’t amateurs, either. The suspected perps are highly competent thieves who target specific people or professions and focus on jewelry and cash. “These subjects were clean subjects who lived for the most part in suburban neighborhoods in nice houses,” FBI Special Agent Daniel Gimenez told the Post. “They have kids going to private school. They are setting up Christmas lights one week. The next [week], they are traveling to a different part of the country to rob someone.” 

That is, if they don’t flee back to their home country. Down in Texas, where Gimenez works, the thieves prey on jewelry districts, targeting salesmen and couriers, identifying them by their rental cars. Gimenez has found that “each member can make $20,000 to $100,000 per job.”

Today, authorities still have few leads and fewer answers. In the meantime, they warn homeowners to be on-guard for strange vehicles and to stay vigilant for their own safety, as it hasn’t mattered that victims have been home when the burglars have struck. While the burglars appear to prefer not to encounter anyone during the break-ins, they’ve also reportedly shown little fear of reprisals from their targets. In March, a 22-year-old in Hillsborough, California was playing video games when he heard someone smash the glass of his bedroom window. After busting into the home, the thieves pulled a safe from the wall of his parents’ bedroom and made off with $300,000 worth of jewelry, including a wedding ring. They stole away into the surrounding wilderness, crossed a creek and were gone. 

A number of Chileans have been arrested on charges of burglary and possession of stolen goods, but there’s definitely been a rush to label them as “South American crime tourists.” To that end, University of California, Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon has referred to police-supplied narratives in the absence of evidence as being “like catnip” for cops. Without hard evidence, law enforcement can speculate on a larger crime wave of foreign criminals, and the press will play along, especially if the suspects fit a larger narrative, about, say, immigration. (In fairness, some cops seem aware of this bias and are striving to counteract it — e.g., Hillsborough Police Capt. Nelson Corteway has told local media, “For us it’s not about immigration and where people are coming from, it’s about having people protect and harden their homes and look for suspicious behavior.”)

For what it’s worth, the Chilean government is taking the issue seriously. Jorge Canelas, press attaché with the Chilean Embassy in D.C., has said there’s been “active cooperation between Chilean police with American counterparts at federal and state levels, as well as continuous information and coordination between Chilean officials with Homeland Security, FBI and other agencies on this matter.” 

Curiously, although the suspects don’t appear to be connected to cartels or other major organized crime families, there is clearly a network or syndicate at work. Some authorities suspect that “the Colombians” are involved as planners. “The Colombians have an organizing role in bringing people in and guiding them to where they should go — and in fencing the goods,” Jesus Bonilla, a Salvadoran-American detective with the Nassau County Police in New York, told Vanity Fair. “An astounding amount of cash is running through their hands. These individuals have tentacles that reach beyond what we had imagined, beyond house burglaries. The organizers, the higher-ups, are a small, tight-knit group — a handful of them. The window crawlers, those are hundreds. Hundreds.”

As for which city these window crawlers will head to next, the best guess here is that they’ll end up wherever the money (and jewelry) takes them.