An FBI agent who fights South American crime gangs says he expects the problem of Chilean burglars in Canada will worsen in the coming years.
Special Agent Romo is part of a task force battling the growing problem of crime tourism — thieves travelling on tourist visas who aren’t interested in seeing the sights but are instead intent on breaking into homes. (Romo’s first name has been withheld at the request of the FBI.)
“They know that Canada has lax laws so that’s the reason why they like Canada,” Romo said.
“It’s just a free-for-all. That’s the reason it’s going to attract more.”
Police in Canada aren’t much more optimistic.
Two Chilean burglary rings were broken up in the Greater Toronto Area in recent years, but police are under no illusion that they’ve made anything more than a dent.
“For sure, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Halton police Det. Sgt. Paul Foley. “By no means did we think we had stopped the problem. If anything, we had stalled the problem.”
The FBI has dubbed the phenomenon South American Theft Groups (SATGs). While there are thieves from several countries, the biggest group hitting Canada appears to hail from Chile.
In April last year, Halton Regional Police arrested 15 Chilean nationals. They say the group was responsible for more than 400 residential break-ins.
Police recovered about $2.7 million worth of stolen jewelry, watches, bags and designer clothing. Foley says the group had so much loot it had rented a commercial storage locker.
“The thieves were extremely successful,” said Foley. “We found one bag with 60 watches in it.”
In September 2015, Toronto police arrested 12 Chilean nationals suspected of committing a series of break-ins over the course of four months. Three other suspects are believed to have fled home to Chile.
A Global News investigation has found that SATGs appear to be hitting cities across Canada.
Four Chilean nationals appeared in a Montreal courtroom on Wednesday, charged with a series of robberies north of the city on March 4.
One of the Ontario groups has been linked to break-ins thousands of kilometres away: some of the items recovered were traced to break-ins in British Columbia.
And a robbery in Edmonton was stopped last fall when the homeowner scared away two Spanish-speaking thieves allegedly trying to pry open his front door.
WATCH BELOW: Doorbell camera catches would-be thieves in west Edmonton on video
Chilean crime groups have also been active in other countries. Over the last few years, Chilean nationals have been arrested for robberies in the U.K., France, Spain and Australia.
According to testimony heard in court, Chileans were being flown to London to commit break-ins and then flown out and replaced every two weeks.
SATGs are active across the U.S. as well. Romo says there have been several arrests in California this week.
“Over the weekend, we got a notification that there were at least three people arrested,” he said. “And there were two detained yesterday in a different city. It’s just a growing problem.”
When police in Australia broke up a Chilean gang in December, they thanked Canadian police for tipping them off.
Three suspects who’d fled Ontario and returned to Chile turned up in Sydney, Australia.
The tip from Halton Regional Police led to eight arrests and the recovery of more than $1 million worth of stolen goods.
According to New South Wales Police Supt. Daniel Doherty, the group robbed about 80 homes and shoplifted from several high-end clothing stores. The tip from Canada allowed police to find and stop the group.
“If it wasn’t for that, I hate to say how many offences they would have committed,” Doherty told reporters at a press conference in Sydney on Dec. 28.
Experts say the gangs target residences when there’s no one home.
Usually, one person rings the bell with a prepared comment if someone should answer the door. In the Edmonton case, the would-be thief was wearing a construction vest as though he was going to inform the homeowner of work going on in the area.
If no one answers, accomplices go to other doors or windows to break in. They act quickly — on average, they’re in and out within five to 10 minutes.
In the 400 cases investigated by Halton Regional Police, the home was empty every time.
“We did not have one incident where there was a confrontation between a homeowner and one of the individuals,” Foley said.
The thieves avoid violence so that if they’re caught, the charges are less severe.
Two Chileans caught breaking into homes in Saint-Eustache, Que., on March 9 pleaded guilty Wednesday. It was supposed to be a bail hearing, but the men pleaded guilty instead.
They were each sentenced to three months, less 21 days for time served.
“We had an agreement with the prosecution and we finalized the case,” said defence lawyer Marie-Helene Giroux.
Sentences like that may make the problem even worse, said Romo.
“If I’m only getting a slap on the wrist then I get out and I’m going to be calling my friends in Chile to say: ‘Hey, it’s great out here. We’re only getting a slap on the wrist. Come on down!’” he explained.