The wealthy Peninsula enclave of Atherton has seen more home burglaries in the last month than it has in any month for many years. And police say the MO of the thieves matches what's been seen in Southern California and elsewhere, where organized groups of Chileans have been methodically breaking into the homes of the wealthy.
There's now such a thing as a "burglary tourism," apparently, and criminals from South America are coming for your jewels. Well, only if you're particularly rich and you live someplace like Hillsborough or Atherton.
As the Mercury News reports, eight homes in Atherton have been burglarized in the last month — and that's significant given that the tony town tends to only see about two burglaries per month, going back at least five years. Atherton Police say they suspect that six of the eight break-ins were committed by the same crew, likely Chileans operating out of Los Angeles.
The work and pattern of these "tourist" burglars was first reported by the Los Angeles Times in April 2019. The story came after police in Simi Valley arrested three Chilean nationals who were in the country on temporary visa waivers on suspicion of some 20 home burglaries and car break-ins at local golf courses. And the FBI said similar crimes had been occurring in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New York and elsewhere in Europe. Four Chileans were also arrested in connection with burglaries in a condo complex in Torrance — though it's not clear that they ever faced prosecution.
"It is a growing problem,” said FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller at the time. "They’re very sophisticated. It’s a hot zone in Southern California."
The Chileans have, allegedly, expanded their operations to Northern California now, and in addition to the recent Atherton burglaries, homes in the similarly wealthy town of Hillsborough have also been recently targeted. There have been a total of 28 residential burglaries in Atherton since the start of last year.
In on burglary last week, according to Atherton police, $50,000 worth of items were stolen from a home on Lilac Drive, after thieves broke in through a glass door on the back of the house.
"Their MO is to get into the master bedroom," said Atherton Chief of Police Steven McCulley. "They do a glass break so they don’t trip any sensors, and most people don’t have option alarms near the master bedroom. They’ve been successful with that MO."
This crew, or multiple crews, tend to go after jewelry as well as designer clothes and handbags that can be easily fenced online — just like those smash-and-grab retail thieves! And McCulley said that it's "not uncommon for [the haul] to be tens of thousands of dollars."
In addition to skirting security systems and targeting homes that are empty — with homeowners out of town — the thieves have been known to use remote key-fob jamming devices that prevent car owners from actually locking their cars. They walk away, believing the cars are locked, and then the crooks swoop in.
"They’re in and out in 10 minutes,” McCulley added. "They know exactly what they’re looking for and where they’re going. What these folks are known for is they don’t want to encounter anybody, and if they do they’re immediately gone. In, out and gone."
McCulley added in a statement that his department is "working with the San Mateo County Police Chiefs and Sheriff Association to leverage the use of existing crime task forces for burglary suppression." And they're hoping to work with the FBI to make some arrests.
But here it's been three years and this group (or groups) is still operating around the state and possibly the country. Or maybe word is just getting around the Chilean criminal underworld about all these easy pickings.
As the Orange County Register reported in 2019, one root of the problem is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which allows citizens from 38 countries to travel to the U.S. for up 90 days for business or pleasure without obtaining a visa — and Chile is the only South American country that participates in the program. Travelers are not guaranteed entry into the country when they arrive, however it is up to the discretion of Customs and Border Protection to allow them in or catch some reason to flag them as suspicious.
As a Chilean TV journalist, Javiera Rodríguez, explained to the LA Times, "There are many Chileans who, being criminals here, travel abroad because they can obtain better treasures. In addition, they are very ingenious and create new forms of theft."
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