Most tourists come to South Florida to lie in the sun, visit glitzy nightclubs and eat at fine restaurants. But law enforcement investigators suspect a group of Chileans have been visiting for more nefarious reasons — like to steal safes loaded with expensive jewelry.
In what’s commonly referred to as “burglary tourism,” local and federal investigators say, groups of Chilean home invaders have worked their way across the country, from California through Arizona and Texas, up to New York, and now, down to South Florida.
The thieves, who are suspected to have entered the U.S. through a short-term visa waiver system intended to help law enforcement identify terrorists and criminals, used fake passports and other phony identification to cross the border. Then they’ve broken into cars using high-tech electronic gimmickry and most of the time, entered unoccupied homes and businesses.
Police in Miami believe one target was the Coconut Grove home of retired attorney Bernard Butts, 78. He was away on vacation when his home was broken into. Butts said he has no idea how anyone knew he had valuables in a safe. The total haul was estimated at more than $1 million in jewelry and gems.
“They took every f****** piece of jewelry,” he said. “I had just had heart surgery and I couldn’t wear my watch [which was in the safe] because my arm was swollen. It was devastating. How they knew? I have no idea. We have alarms. We have glass protection.”
Often, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property and jewelry are stolen during a single home break-in. Law enforcement officials say the thieves enter homes by breaking through rear glass doors or windows, then often pile furniture up against the front door to deny immediate entry in case they have to scurry out the back entrance to avoid being caught.
At least twice this year, police said, Chilean ring members are suspected of breaking into homes in Coconut Grove and The Roads sections of Miami. They’re also suspected of breaking into a home on Key Biscayne. In the Grove burglary, they hauled off a heavy safe that was bolted to the ground and contained more than $1 million worth of rings and watches. In another, police said, a homeowner managed to shoot one of the intruders, who still managed to get away.
Publicly, Miami police are keeping information regarding the investigation of the burglaries close to the vest.
“We’re aware of the information of the Chileans and we are investigating it,” said Deputy Miami Police Chief Ron Papier.
But law enforcement sources with knowledge of the local burglaries said based on similarities to the break-ins in the western states, they have strong reason to believe the crimes are connected and being coordinated by the Chilean ring of tourist burglars. None of the burglars captured or seen on video has had a firearm, which likely would have upped charges and sentencing against them.
The FBI in Miami declined to comment. But federal sources with knowledge of the break-ins suspect they’ve been carried out by international crime rings based in Chile that take advantage of the visa waiver program for easy entry into the U.S.
The Los Angeles Times first reported on the theft ring in April, but the story did not have a Florida connection at the time.
Federal law enforcement officials believe the crooks, who also operate in parts of Europe, came to the U.S. on something called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization program. It’s intended to allow residents from dozens of countries to visit the U.S. for tourism, business or for medical reasons and to study here for up to 90 days.
The program, which was created in 2009, is good for two years and allows visitors to enter the U.S. without filling out more thorough applications.
According to the L.A. Times, the group uses advanced technology to commit some of the crimes. Several Chileans arrested in California earlier this year used electronic jamming devices that interrupted signals sent from car owners trying to lock their doors with key fobs.
There were 23 Chilean men arrested on various burglary charges in Simi Valley and Laguna Niguel, California. In one case they broke into a jewelry store and stole more than $1 million worth of goods. Each man was here on a tourist visa.
Miami police believe similar groups of Chileans were responsible for at least two local robberies and likely several more. At the Butts home, they were caught on surveillance video hauling away a heavy safe that had been bolted to the floor. The thieves broke into the home by pulling out a bedroom window, which avoided setting off an intricate alarm system.
Surveillance video captured a man hauling away the safe. Inside was more than $1 million in jewelry and $14,000 in U.S. currency and Euros. Among the items reportedly stolen: $165,000 in precious gems, two bracelets valued at $38,000, a $15,000 Rolex and several sets of earrings worth more than $10,000.
All the men in the video wore light-colored jackets, dark track pants and what appeared to be lightweight sneakers. Some carried pen lights that they used to peek into the home through sliding glass doors. According to the police report, the last person in the home was a cleaning woman who was there two days before the burglary.
“We were only out of town for a week,” said Butts. Asked if he had any family, friends or acquaintances in Chile, Butts said, “No, no, none at all.”
An investigator familiar with the burglary said the Coconut Grove ripoff fit the pattern of previous burglaries by the Chileans.
“There were three individuals, the backpacks, how they target the master bedroom, even the rental cars,” the investigator said.
What remains unclear is how the burglars knew there were so many valuables in the safe in the retired attorney’s bedroom.
Then in August, police believe the group struck again, this time at a home in The Roads neighborhood of Miami. But before they were able to haul away any property, they were interrupted. According to police, as three Hispanic males tried to enter the home through a rear set of French doors, they were met by a homeowner who was wielding a 12-gauge shotgun.
Police said he fired three rounds through the doors at the men, then continued firing after chasing them to the front of the home, where they got into a white Volkswagen Jetta and drove off. Left behind were three screwdrivers, a pair of white sunglasses and a baseball cap. Police and the homeowner also believe one of the rounds struck one of the burglars, who still managed to escape.
“A check of area hospitals for individuals seeking medical care for a gunshot or cut wounds came back negative,” an investigator wrote in the police incident report.