When criminals take advantage of America’s lax immigration laws, it’s usually the poor and vulnerable who pay the price. But a new crime wave is targeting the wealthiest elements of society, often in Democratic states and sanctuary cities. Police officers blame this nationwide surge in so-called “crime tourism” on South American gangs exploiting loopholes in immigration law — and low-bail or no-bail policies in liberal states — to victimize affluent suburbs.
This years-long burglary spree has cost Americans untold millions of dollars, yet no one seems prepared to altar the statutes that incentivize this behavior.
Crime tourism by South American Theft Groups (SATGs)
Police from California to New York are warning about an increasing number of burglaries by South American Theft Groups (SATGs). These criminal enterprises recruit burglars in South America to enter the United States through a specific immigration loophole. The program allows people from 40 countries to arrive on U.S. soil for short-term tourism or business without a visa. Some in Chile, the only South American country on the list, have seen this as an invitation to export terrorism and import high-end U.S. goods.
Once on U.S. soil, thieves reportedly join in cells of two to eight people for the purposes of committing grand theft in wealthy suburbs. They often rent expensive vehicles so they can blend in as they case the neighborhood and learn the homeowners’ patterns. The perpetrators wait until they believe the homeowner is gone, or when family members are not currently inside their bedrooms, before breaking in. Many take pains to enter through second-floor windows — some security systems only cover the ground floor — and they take jewelry, cash, even hoist full safes out of the walls to open at another location. Authorities say they regularly make off with $20,000 to $100,000 per crime.
Some of the victims are well-known, and little-liked. Police say former “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, lost $1 million after their home was robbed by a group of thieves believed to be from South America.
Wealthy neighborhoods have become frequent targets. FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller told the Los Angeles Times in 2019, “It’s a hot zone in Southern California.” Detective Sergeant Michael Maher, supervisor of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Major Crimes Bureau Burglary-Robbery Task Force, says he has noticed many crews of the robbers his task force has arrested were from Chile. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department blamed SATGs for 60 burglaries in less than a year.
SATGs are also active on the other side of the sanctuary state, in the tony suburbs of San Francisco. Burglaries soared in the Bay Area suburb of Hillsborough (median household income: $250,000), from 30 last year to 20 in three months in late 2021 and early 2022. In nearby Atherton (average household income in 2020: $525,000), burglaries quadrupled in January. Police in both cities have tied the surge to South American Theft Groups.
But the problem has spread nationwide. Police in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia found one SATG that was responsible for 100 robberies in Fairfax and Montgomery Counties, with thefts totaling $3.6 million.
South American Theft Groups, some based in places like Texas, have perpetrated hundreds of robberies nationwide. SATGs have plied their trade in Cleveland, Indianapolis, in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, in Henrico County, Virginia — which is the Richmond, Virginia, area. They’re active wherever affluent people live.
Police say one burglary team alone, led by Bryan Herrera Maldonado, traveled from California to Washington, dripped southward from Montana to Colorado, then toured the Midwest. SATGs have a broader reach than the Colombian drug cartels of old, said Andrew Hague, an assistant state attorney in Florida. “You knew the Colombian cartels were going through Miami, but I don’t remember a cartel that had operations going countrywide or worldwide,” he said. “Everybody’s getting hit.”
The crime spree appears to have gone global. In 2018, police in the Toronto suburb of Halton pinned more than 400 burglaries on SATGs. In recent years, British police arrested an average of 100 Chileans a year, with some of the robberies targeting Premier League soccer players. Similar stories occurred in France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. An FBI agent with knowledge of SATG’s reach places the global cost in the tens of millions of dollars.
Commander Erik Bushow of Ventura County, California, Sheriff’s Office said the gangs usually strike when the house is empty and, though they’re not known to be violent, their interlocking network of thieves represents a national menace. “This is crime tourism. They’re coming here for the purpose of targeting neighborhoods, specifically vehicles, homes,” said Bushow. “Not violent crimes, but they’re going after the big bucks.”
When the criminals return to Chile, they “show off their money and luxury,” said Chilean National Police’s Jorge Sánchez Sandoval. This, in turn, “motivates their neighbors, who see the new cars and jewelry,” to become the next wave of short-term burglars.
Investigators believe the local nature of burglaries has obscured the fact that the thieves are the lowest rung of a far-flung criminal enterprise stretching across continents, if not oceans. “These individuals have tentacles that reach beyond what we had imagined, beyond house burglaries,” said Jesus Bonilla, a police officer in Nassau County, New York. “The organizers, the higher-ups, are a small, tight-knit group — a handful of them. … It’s a network we’re trying to dismantle.”
But those networks cannot be dismantled without abolishing the policies that attracted them to the United States in the first place.
Liberal policies invite ‘criminal tourism’
Immigration tourism. SATGs have exploited a government immigration plan called the “Electronic System for Travel Authorization,” which allows citizens in 40 countries to travel to the United States without a visa and stay up to 90 days. It costs less than $20 to apply, and some contend that tourists face reduced scrutiny by immigration authorities when they enter the country. The U.S. government added the only South American country, Chile, to the program in 2014, and experts say that is when SATGs began to surge.
Sanctuary city/state laws. Some police believe these South American Theft Gangs target areas with sanctuary city status or weak immigration laws. Detective Steve Collett of the Simi Valley Police Department, who investigated a string of such burglaries in 2019, “said he believes California is a primary target for these theft crews due to California’s status as a sanctuary state after the passage of SB 54, which limits how much local law enforcement agencies can cooperate with federal authorities in enforcing immigration law,” reported the Ventura County Star.
Weak immigration laws. Since the adoption of the ESTA program for Chile, many members of SATGs have taken advantage of how easy it is to come to the U.S. illegally. “They get fictitious documents, IDs, residency cards, to claim they’re legally here,” an FBI agent told Vanity Fair. Occasionally, the cells try to pass themselves off as Puerto Ricans, so they can stay in the United States and prolong their crime spree. Policies that make it easy for illegal aliens to take up residence in the U.S. make it easy for criminals to take up residence amongst them.
No-bail/low-bail policies. One of the few overhead costs for SATGs comes when one of their footsoldiers gets arrested and must put up bail. Once the bail has been paid, the individual returns to Chile, and another thief takes his place. No-bail laws eliminate even this low cost of business — and the SATGs’ recruiters know it. Five Chilean burglars arrested in Long Island in March 2020 “brazenly told arresting officers that their handler recruited them to burglarize New York homes and that the risk of jail was low because of the state’s new bail reform laws, which requires no bail for misdemeanors and many nonviolent crimes,” reported Newsday.
Evil does not discriminate
A conservative reader might be tempted to write this off as the cultural elites finally paying the price for their support of open border policies, but this is the wrong reaction for at least two reasons. First, it is unseemly to rejoice over the misfortunes of others. Second, if Jesus Bonilla rightly tied these burglaries to organized crime, then foreign syndicates will leverage the proceeds of these robberies to commit even more crime in their host nations — and these crimes will not occur only among the affluent. Evil does not long discriminate, as this wave of crime tourism proves.