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Metro Detroit police brace for more burglaries by South American 'crime tourists'

George Hunter, The Detroit News on

Published in News & Features

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Police in Metro Detroit are bracing for another round of burglaries by South American "crime tourists" who enter the United States through a visa waiver program and move from state to state stealing from upscale homes.

Recent crimes in Bloomfield Township and Northville Township were committed by the same network of Chilean gangs that was responsible for a series of Michigan break-ins last year, law enforcement officials said. Asian Americans have been disproportionately targeted, local police said, which mirrors trends in other states where the burglary gangs also operate.

Police say they're able to connect the crimes to the designated South American Theft Group because of the gangs' military-like tactics that include dressing in camouflage clothing while casing luxury homes, sometimes for weeks, and using electronics to jam alarm systems. They steal cash, jewelry and expensive purses, often breaking into safes, police said.

"We saw these gangs come to Bloomfield Township in February of 2022, and that crew was captured and linked to similar cases in Indiana," Bloomfield Township Police Officer Nick Soley said. "We didn't see any cases for a while, and then toward the end of the summer (of 2023), we got hit hard up until about Thanksgiving week.

"It quieted down for a while, and then, two to three weeks ago, we saw a reemergence of the gangs in Bloomfield Township and Northville Township," Soley added. "We knew these gangs would be back, and we're confident they are back. We think they're going to stick around, so we're definitely preparing for it."

The burglars in the most recent Metro Detroit incidents have not been caught, although last year, police arrested three Chilean nationals in connection with similar home invasions in Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe Farms, Rochester, Rochester Hills, and Ada Township. Four Chileans also were charged in the armed robberies of jewelry stores at Oakland Mall in Troy and Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills last year.


All seven suspects entered the U.S. through a program that allows people to visit the country without visas, said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who, along with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, formed a task force in December aimed at combating the South American Theft Group.

Bouchard, a Republican, insists the crimes will continue unless the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden exempts Chile from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program that allows citizens from 41 countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without visas. The burglary gang members stay beyond the 90 days, using fake identification cards that are provided by colleagues who are already in the United States, according to Bouchard and other law enforcement officials.

While police said most of the break-ins are committed by Chileans who abuse the ESTA program, other South American burglary gang members — whom authorities have dubbed " crime tourists" or " burglary tourists " — also enter the U.S. illegally from Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.

"This isn't going to stop until something is done," Bouchard said. "Communities across the country are getting hammered by these gangs. They hit us last year and then they came back again — and I'm sure they'll be back again unless something is done. When we do make arrests, more people just come in through this program, or else they just walk through the open southern border. Aside from all the other security issues from having an open border, this is a huge problem.


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