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Sophisticated 'burglary tourists' fly from South America to rob wealthy homes, LAPD says

Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters is seen on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.
Los Angeles Police Department headquarters is seen on Feb. 8, 2022. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In the desert around Scottsdale, Ariz., on Monday, police officers hunted for a member of an international heist ring suspected of swiping jewels and luxury goods from homes across Los Angeles. Using helicopters and drones, they eventually found him hiding under a tree.

The wanted man, it turned out, was a 17-year-old from Chile.

Authorities say the teenager and his two adult accomplices later admitted to breaking into multiple homes, part of a growing trend of "burglary tourism" from South America.

The Los Angeles Police Department said the teenage fugitive was first arrested Feb. 29 in Pacific Palisades along with three other Chileans as they cased homes in the wealthy enclave. Police tracked down the crew after a security camera captured the license plate of their 2024 Hyundai Tucson amid a series of burglaries across East Hollywood.

Increasingly over the last five years, police officials say, thieves from South American nations have entered the U.S. for the purpose of committing robberies. In the case of Chile, authorities suspect some criminals are taking advantage of the tourist visa system, which does not require a background check for travelers. Once in the country, police say, they plan heist sprees and fence the loot before dispatching their earnings back home.

LAPD Deputy Chief Alan Hamilton told The Times that South American theft groups are not new in L.A., but they have become more active in recent months.

Although crime statistics show burglaries are on the decline overall, Hamilton said: "The number of crimes tied to these kind of crews are way, way up."

He cautioned that it's difficult to know for certain how many robberies can be attributed to foreign burglars, but said evidence indicates they are behind scores of break-ins. He estimated that north of the 118 Freeway in L.A. last year there were 94 burglaries, many probably committed by these crews.

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"They often target homes often connected to open spaces, hiking trails and canyons that give them access," Hamilton said.

The groups mostly hit wealthy neighborhoods where homes have jewelry and high-value items that can be easily exchanged for cash, he said.

"They tend to not carry guns. They don't want to get gun charges," Hamilton said. "They sometimes carry jamming devices to disable home security systems."

While Chileans are among the most common members of these criminal enterprises, Hamilton said, they are seeing other South Americans including Peruvians, Ecuadoreans and Colombians as well. The LAPD and other local law enforcement agencies have formed a task force dedicated to the problem.

“I can tell you that we have a significant increase in burglaries from organized groups that are outside this country, that are coming into the country, and they are targeting high-end residents," LAPD Chief Dominic Choi said at Tuesday's Police Commission meeting.

In one case on Aug. 17 of last year, Burbank police officers arrested a man identified as Felipe Leiva Solis, a 33-year-old Chilean national, after a woman hiding in the bathroom of her home called to report that four men had broken in through a sliding door. Leiva Solis was found in a nearby yard on Burbank's North Parish Place and is suspected of four other burglaries across the city, according to court documents.

Leiva Solis was released on bail but picked up again on Dec. 19 in Glendale by police officers who suspect he was behind a string of burglaries in the city. He was among a group of three men who tried to flee on foot when their vehicle was stopped, according to Glendale Police Investigator Jackie Nguy.

In court papers asking for Leiva Solis to remain in custody, Nguy alleged the Chilean was part of "an organized burglary ring responsible for a minimum of ten residential burglaries in Glendale," and also tied to other thefts in Beverly Hills and other counties.

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LAPD Det. Robert Hoebink said in a court declaration that Leiva Solis' crew was tied to at least 30 burglaries in West Los Angeles alone. Hoebink alleged the Chilean used a fake passport to open a Bank of America account and wired more than $23,000 back home despite being here on a tourist visa.

LAPD officers on Dec. 27 nabbed three more of the crew allegedly tied to Leiva Solis near Coldwater Canyon Drive south of Mulholland when called to assist Beverly Hills on a manhunt for burglars. Inside a Ford Explorer, police said they found $1 million worth of stolen designer purses, clothing, watches and jewelry — all believed to be from a single heist.

Three more arrests would come the next day as LAPD investigators recovered more high-end items from the group's base of operations.

On Dec. 30, another West L.A. burglary led Beverly Hills police to identify a white Mercedes GLS as tied to the crime, arresting a female driver and four other suspects nearby.

Leiva Solis is being held without bail and is slated to be back in court next week. He's pleaded not guilty to three counts of burglary and one count of conspiracy to commit burglary.

Investigators say Chilean or South American crews are also behind hundreds of break-ins in Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Diego counties.

In Orange County, Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer has aggressively prosecuted South American thieves and sued the federal government for failing to disclose its negotiations with Chile over visa requirements for travelers. He has called for measures to stop criminals from entering as tourists.

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Spitzer said the Chilean government has refused to abide by a requirement to provide the U.S. with the criminal history of Chilean citizens who use a visa program called Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA. The program allows Chileans residents to enter the U.S. for 90-day periods an unlimited number of times. Visa requirements vary between countries, but travelers from several other South American nations typically require visas with tighter restrictions before coming to the U.S.

Without criminal histories of Chileans, prosecutors have been largely handcuffed in trying to prove defendants are linked beyond a single burglary charge, Spitzer said.

The Chilean Embassy in Los Angeles did not respond to a request for comment.

Authorities said the Chilean teenage fugitive arrested in Arizona had fake Venezuelan paperwork when he was arrested in L.A. and had repeatedly tried to evade police. After he was arrested Feb. 29 in L.A., he told authorities his parents had left him alone in the U.S. with a family friend. Once he was turned over to L.A. County Children and Family Services, he vanished after going for a walk in Lakewood, police said.

When he was eventually recaptured this week, Scottdale Police Chief Jeff Walther said the teenager had "court documentation from his crimes he committed in California and before fleeing to Arizona ... and some property we are trying to tie to other burglaries."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.