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Thousand Oaks

Chilean Theft Gang Activity Surges in Affluent Neighborhoods

Last fall, the number of home burglaries committed by Chilean theft gangs in Ventura County fell to one or two per week, causing some in law enforcement to believe the epidemic of such break-ins was finally winding down.

Caught: Three members of a Chilean theft gang were living in Upland and Chino and conducting burglaries in Moorpark. They were apprehended and arrested in 2021.

“The initial feeling was that we took their best shot, now let’s stay on top of it,” says Deputy District Attorney Brandon Ross, who served as the community prosecutor for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office East Valley station for two years before moving to another assignment.

“There are very few agencies in the state that go to the lengths this department does to investigate each and every one of these cases.”

Deputy District Attorney Brandon Ross

But in 2024, burglary gang thefts have spiked to “a staggering number, to the point where you’re seeing five to ten per week in the county,” Ross says. “All of a sudden, it hit, and it hit hard. It’s almost like [theft gangs] are … trying to overwhelm us.”

Behind the Gates: Chilean Theft Gangs are entering houses in exclusive neighborhoods like Lake Sherwood through open spaces via public roads.

The pattern of strategic, rapid-strike home burglaries by highly organized Chilean groups has become part of the local crime landscape, particularly in the last four years. The groups’ tactics are well-established:

— They enter the U.S. from Chile due to Chile’s non-compliance with visa agreements allowing country-of-origin criminal background checks by U.S. Border Patrol.

— The thieves live together in clusters throughout Los Angeles County and San Diego.

— They are systematic, driving to affluent neighborhoods during the day to survey specific homes and study homeowner behavior until they are familiar with who lives there and when homes will be empty.

— They return to gated communities after dark, entering through golf courses and open spaces via public roads.

— They break into homes by climbing onto balconies or reaching second-floor windows where alarms and locks are less frequently installed.

— They proceed immediately to the master bedroom closet where most people store precious items.

— They ignore electronics and instead grab high-dollar items like jewelry, watches, gold and cash.

— They leave within a few minutes of breaking in.

Ross says the sophisticated burglaries target houses “well-fortified with alarms, surveillance cameras, lighting and fences,” located in ritzy, often gated neighborhoods such as Lake Sherwood, North Ranch and Spanish Hills in Camarillo.

“[When this began], we were seeing burglaries in places we would never expect them to be committed,” he says.

One residence on the Westlake Village golf course area was hit twice for $40,000 to $50,000 each time.

“I’m not aware of a tract home under 2,000 square feet that’s been hit [by these theft gangs], except for one,” he says.

The perpetrators of Ventura County burglaries are usually young Chilean men who have been in the U.S. for a year or two and who live together “in small communities with the same residences, in AirBnBs and hotels in the San Fernando Valley,” says Ross.

Some are even related. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives have been arrested committing crimes together.

“Through cell phone analysis, we can see they are all intercommunicating,” Ross says. “That shocked us. They know each other. We know this because we know where their phones have been.”

Theft gang members spend their days casing wealthy homes, then returning to their places of residence to pick up others to assist them, then casing homes again.

“They start early in the morning, then go back to their residences, then go back that night to do the burglary,” says Ross. “This is all they do. They do not have normal jobs.”

Typically, the thieves begin their American careers on the East Coast, coalescing into gangs, perhaps at the direction of someone overseas, and traveling from one wealthy neighborhood to another, moving on before local law enforcement can apprehend them. Working westward, they hit cities in the Midwest and South and end up in California.

“The West Coast is their final destination,” says Ross. “We can monitor their locations from rap sheets. They stop in Texas, come to Southern California, then work up to the Silicon Valley.”

Ross received a call one time from a Philadelphia township detective asking if Ventura County still had a certain suspect in custody who was connected to a residential burglary in a wealthy area of Philadelphia. In that incident, suspects entered a large house via a second-story balcony, dragged a safe onto the balcony, pushed it off, and then dragged it to a get-away vehicle. A small blood smear on the railing connected the suspect via DNA analysis to Ross’ defendant, and the theft gang was busted. They were tied to 27 different burglaries on the East Coast.

Locally, stories of brazen burglaries have become common:

— In Camarillo, one couple left their home for a short period of time, during which burglars entered through a second-story window using a ladder that was stored on the side of the house. Thieves stole firearms and a safe, which they wheeled to their vehicle using a dolly from the garage. And they got away with it. There are no leads, the stolen goods were never found, and fingerprints produced no matches.

— A North Ranch resident came home from picking kids up from school to find burglars carrying the family safe out the front door and loading it into a get-away car. The family now owns a large guard dog and has had no further problems.

Statistics show theft gangs don’t want to have a confrontation with a canine.

— A 2022 residential burglary in Spanish Hills led to a high-speed chase by sheriff’s officers who had been monitoring and tracking a crew by way of their cell phones. The suspects tossed a bag full of burglary tools out of the car window as they fled and were finally apprehended in Reseda. All were convicted.

— A crew that targeted the lake area of Westlake Village, plus residences in Camarillo, used a female accomplice posing as a DoorDash delivery person to knock on doors to determine if anyone was home. If not, she signaled her co-conspirators, who broke in quickly and, in one case, stole $100,000 of jewelry, watches and more. After hitting six houses in three months, the crew was arrested; five have pled guilty.

High-Tech Burglars

“Criminals are using technology at a greater rate than the public would guess.”

Deputy District Attorney Brandon Ross

These are not just low-tech, grab-and-go ventures.

“Criminals are using technology at a greater rate than the public would guess,” Ross says. “People would be shocked.”

For example, some burglary groups now employ cell phone jammers to keep homeowners from calling 911 or other forms of help. They also use jammers to disable alarm systems that rely on WiFi to alert homeowners or alarm companies that a window or door has been breached.

“It adds a whole new dimension to the risk this poses to homeowners,” Ross says. “People think, ‘Well, I have my cell phone, and if I hear a window break, I can call 911.’ That may not be the case because of the technological tools criminals are using.”

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2019 that Chilean thieves used a jamming device “to prevent car owners from locking their vehicles … The device interrupts the signal when car owners activate the lock on key fobs.”

Lately, they are casing people through the internet as well, Ross says. One popular Instagram influencer who owned multiple high-end vehicles flaunted her wealth a little too publicly. Suspects found out where she lived, ascertained when she was out of town, stole one of her vehicles and used it to commit crimes. That points to another strategy in which crooks steal high-end cars so they can scope out affluent neighborhoods without drawing attention to themselves. One group used a $180,000 Mercedes-Benz to troll through such communities. A Ring camera caught a small, distinctive feature that allowed sheriffs to identify the car and find it using license plate readers.

Once suspects are caught, they typically don’t seem to care, Ross says.

“For the most part, they are non-violent and willing to say exactly what they did,” says Ross. “[They say], ‘I went into this house and burglarized it because I need the money.’ It’s as if they have nothing to lose. Even without those Miranda statements, we could prosecute, but I find it interesting that they are willing to talk.”

One thing they never do is reveal who sent them to the U.S. to steal.

“This is a federal issue, but we’re getting hit here at the local level.”

Kevin McNamee, Thousand Oaks City Council Member

“The people we are prosecuting are pretty low-level,” Ross says. “I don’t think we’ve caught any big fish. The people who get hired to do the jobs don’t know the extent of what they’re doing or what they’re involving themselves in. They probably think it’s not a big deal, and that’s why they’re so casual about what they’re doing.”

Thousand Oaks City Council Member Kevin McNamee says the main driver of the burglaries is the fact that the U.S. State Department refuses to stop Chileans from using expedited visa rights to enter the U.S. as part of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) Visa Waiver Program. ESTA allows participating countries to search each others’ criminal digital databases to vet would-be travelers at border entry points. Of the 40 countries that participate in ESTA, only Chile has failed to allow access to its own databases — but instead of denying Chileans expedited entry, the U.S. Department of State has kept all U.S. borders open to Chile, allowing in thieves who receive fast visas with no background checks and no enforcement after their visas expire.

“This is a federal issue, but we’re getting hit here at the local level,” says McNamee. “There’s only so much the police and our district attorney can do.”

Because nearly all the theft gang members are from Chile, McNamee refuses to use the politically correct term “transnational theft gangs” or even “South American theft gangs.”

“People need to know the truth: they’re coming from Chile,” he says. “Yes, you’ve got some other South Americans in here, too, like Venezuelans, but the vast majority of them are Chilean, and the reason is this [ESTA] problem.”

Since becoming a council member, McNamee has pushed for action at the national and local levels. As mayor, he traveled to Washington, D.C., in December 2022 and met with political and law enforcement leaders to press them to kick Chile out of ESTA.

“It’s very easy. You say to Chile, ‘Either you digitally upload [your criminal database] or you’re out of the ESTA program,’” McNamee says. “All it means is we go back to the old system with Chile, where if a Chilean wants to go to the United States to visit on a 90-day or less travel or business visa, they have to go to the U.S. Embassy in Chile. They can still travel, but it has to be done the old-fashioned way, and it’s not expedited by having the criminal background record [digitally available].”

Exacerbating the problem is that in Los Angeles County, District Attorney George Gascon “is not doing any bail for people,” McNamee says. Even if caught, theft gang members “are back on the streets doing the same crimes, or they’re on a plane heading back to Chile, and a person replacing them has been put on a plane on the way [here]. You never [get to] prosecute.”

A Los Angeles police officer McNamee recently spoke with shared that he and his partner had pulled over four Chileans in a car and arrested them for burglary. As they were processing the men, the officers saw bites on two of the four men’s legs. Through fingerprints, they learned that they had been arrested the day before in Palmdale, where they had taken part in a high-speed chase, bailed out of the car and run before being chased down by a dog that bit two of them.

“I said to the police officer, ‘You mean to tell me that within 24 hours, they were back out on the street doing it again?’ He said, ‘Yes,’” says McNamee.

Scott Nelson of Westlake Village served as an assistant director for the FBI for 25 years, then ran security for Warner Bros. Studios and other large companies before starting a security and risk management consultancy. He teaches criminal justice at the university level. Recently, two of Nelson’s friends’ homes were burglarized via an arroyo behind their properties in North Ranch.

“It’s unfortunate because the FBI has downgraded investigations like this so much that very little will be done,” Nelson says. “It is analogous to our southern border. The Department of State could shut it down, but their mentality is globalist: ‘Open, open, open.’ The southern border feeds the pipeline for gangsters from all over the world.”

Nelson is doing his part to provide solutions for affluent residents. In addition to installing alarm systems, cameras and strong locking systems, some clients have installed iron-link chain systems such as those used by inner-city businesses at night. The barriers, installed in enclosures above balcony doors, drop down with the flip of a switch or at the triggering of a timer and lock into place.

But Nelson believes the best and most available solutions are basic.

“It sounds silly and simplistic, but I’ll tell you, a big, barking dog — it works,” Nelson says.

Also topping the list of prevention measures is crime awareness. He has found that community newsletters in some wealthy communities are reluctant to discuss the theft gang problem, and many don’t want to think it could happen to them.

“If you’re not aware and you don’t care — and that’s frankly the view of most, and I get it; we’re all busy — but awareness is huge because there are simple things you can do to harden the target,” he says.

For example, he says, leave lights on, don’t let mail stack up, ask neighbors to take in packages from the front porch when you’re gone and generally “make the place look occupied.”

He says Ventura County residents are blessed with law enforcement agencies that actually care about solving the problem of theft gangs. He calls local police departments, sheriffs and the district attorney’s office “bright spots” for their responsiveness and diligence in prosecuting burglaries.

“They work these cases,” Nelson says.

Ross agrees. He has interacted with law enforcement agencies in other parts of Southern California, which won’t even look into crimes committed by theft gangs. One victim in an Inland Empire city suffered a home burglary and “never got a response from their investigative agency,” Ross says. “The agency just said, ‘This is a South American theft group. We don’t have any leads,’ and dropped it. That doesn’t happen in this county. You’re going to hear from the sheriff’s office and know something will be done.”

He praises District Attorney Eric Nasarenko for dedicating “a lot of resources to it” and especially praises “the unsung heroes” in the sheriff’s department.

“There are very few agencies in the state that I have worked with that go to the lengths this department does to investigate each and every one of these cases,” Ross says. “We will exhaust so many avenues before we say we can’t find anything, from the smallest of these residential burglaries to the most expensive losses.”

And while the crooks use technology, so do the good guys.

One of the most powerful tools to track down perpetrators has been geo-fencing technology. When a house is burglarized, law enforcement can obtain a warrant that provides a record of all devices in use near the burglarized house at the time of the incident. Some belong to delivery workers or people walking their dogs, but others belong to “those who have no lawful reason to be there,” says Ross.

Closing the Border to Theft Gangs: “It’s very easy. You say to Chile, ‘Either you digitally upload [your criminal database] or you’re out of the ESTA program.’” — T.O. City Council Member Kevin McNamee

License plate readers have also proven invaluable, and McNamee has spearheaded the effort to get local cities to put them in place so known burglary vehicles can be tracked when they arrive in Ventura County.

Just as important are neighbors who look out for each other, Ross says.

“Every time I get a case in which an everyday citizen notices something and calls 911 to report something suspicious — I think, ‘That victim owes that caller for averting a crime,’” Ross says.

He also advises moving valuable personal property from the master bedroom closet to other rooms of the house because this brand of burglar is not inclined to spend a lot of time hunting through the house.

“Typically, the master bedroom is the only room they are upheaving,” he says.

Like Nelson, he also recommends having a dog that barks.

“Statistics show they [Chilean burglars] don’t want to have a confrontation with a canine,” he says.

Furry Anti-Theft Devices: “It sounds silly and simplistic, but I’ll tell you, a big, barking dog — it works.” — Scott Nelson, former FBI associate director

One resident in Camarillo had no dog but prevented the burglary of his own home by telling burglars through a Ring device at 2 a.m. that he was in the home and had called the police. The suspects, dressed in black and possessing extra clothes, gloves and shoes, ran away but were caught by officers.

At times, stolen property is recovered, and items like handbags, purses and jewelry are returned to their owners, who can identify them with ID numbers, identifying marks or photographs.

Persistent Prevention: “You can’t stop them but only hope to contain them. It’s not that [theft gangs] are that good, but they’re omnipresent.” — Brandon Ross, Deputy District Attorney

Ross says that while local law enforcement agencies continue to do a valiant job of preventing and prosecuting such break-ins, “You can’t stop them but only hope to contain them. It’s not that [theft gangs] are that good, but they’re omnipresent. … You empathize with the families who feel victimized and have their sense of security taken from them.”

Joel Kilpatrick
Joel Kilpatrick
Joel Kilpatrick is a writer and journalist.

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