Homeowners in wealthy neighborhoods throughout Orange County have been targeted by South American theft rings in what authorities dub “burglary tourism.”
Residential break-ins attributed to tourist burglars, known as “Lanzas Internacionales,” or international thieves in the Spanish-speaking world, are on the rise, the Sheriff’s Department says.
Crime data in south Orange County for 2022 show overall home burglaries are relatively low – still mostly in the single digits in the various cities under contract with the Sheriff’s Department. But there are signs the tourist rings are at work.
The crews are pros, authorities say. They’re quick and proficient, and they don’t always stick around after arrests. “They’re like ghosts, here today and gone tomorrow,” an undercover detective in Los Angeles said.
The rings have “changed what a typical burglary is,” said Shep Bryan, owner of Maximum Security Safes in Santa Ana.
He said the thieves will haul commercial tools to tear out bolted-down or mounted wall safes. Bryan noticed a shift in the past year, when clients came in asking how to protect their possessions against the tourist burglars, including one client who reported about $180,000 worth of damage to his marble staircase after burglars stole a 500-pound safe from the second floor and dragged it down the stairs.
Bryan has two used safes in his showroom that have survived attempted burglaries in Irvine and Yorba Linda; he believes the tourist burglars were behind them.
The rings have been around for decades, but authorities noticed a nationwide uptick since 2018, with police arresting more Chilean and Colombian nationals operating in loose-knit groups of skilled burglars. They may ship the stolen goods back to their country, authorities say, or sell them online before wiring the money.
Typically, the thieves use the same modus operandi. They target homes, surveilling them a few days prior and returning when occupants are gone. The burglars may use ladders, rain gutters, or stacked patio furniture to access the master bedroom, typically on the second floor. Or they enter through a back or side door, police say, breaking the glass to avoid detection by some security devices.
Nancy Silverberg said her Laguna Hills home was one of the three hit on Valentine’s Day last year. Silverberg, 69, whose house backs up against a horse trail, came home to a french door “gouged out” and a hole in her patio roof cover.
She thinks a burglar may have fallen through her patio roof while trying to access the second floor.
A total of $150,000 was stolen, she said, including jewelry and watches. The most painful loss for her and her husband was items their parents had left them. “There’s nothing we can do about the sentimental pieces,” she said.
Laguna Hills resident Nancy Silverberg believes a burglar may have fallen through her patio roof while trying to access the second floor. (Photo by Nancy Silverberg)
In Capistrano Beach, a 66-year-old man described returning home one evening to find thieves had broken into his safe and stolen a few hundred dollars in cash and at least $10,000 in jewelry.
“It’s been two months, and every time I come home it goes through my head,” said the resident, who declined to give his name because of safety concerns.
The groups have targeted coastal neighborhoods and homes bordering trails, parks, and golf courses, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Steinle. Communities such as Talega in San Clemente, the Hunt Club in San Juan Capistrano, Monarch Bay in Dana Point, Dover Shores in Newport Beach, Ocean Ranch in Laguna Niguel, and Nellie Gail in Laguna Hills have reported multiple crimes on the neighborhood app Nextdoor. Detectives reportedly have told victims they suspect the tourist burglars.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 24 years, we’ve never had anything like this,” said Christine, a 55-year-old Dana Point resident who was burglarized in 2022 and asked that her last name be withheld.
She said she returned home one evening and found shattered glass on her bedroom floor after thieves broke in through a sliding door and tore her closet apart. They took $25,000 in designer handbags, wallets, and jewelry. She said she saw an increased law enforcement presence in the neighborhood for a few months after the burglary.
Christine, a 55-year-old Dana Point resident, returned home one evening and found shattered glass on her bedroom floor after thieves broke in through a sliding door. (Photo by Christine)
In Huntington Harbour, 32 residential burglaries have been reported by residents between June 2021 and February 2023 so far. As did the south county homeowners, residents said police suspect burglary tourists in those cases, though official numbers are attributed more broadly to organized burglary crews.
Irvine police reported 21 residential burglaries over a five-week period in December sharing similar patterns to others in the county. Neighborhoods in Turtle Rock and the Great Park area were the most affected, according to Irvine Police Sgt. Karie Davis.
Later that month, Irvine police arrested two suspects they believed to be a part of an organized criminal network targeting homes. Despite their similarities, police have not publicly attributed the incidents to South American groups. Authorities say several burglary rings are operating in Orange County, including the tourist crews.
Police believe the Chilean nationals have used the ESTA visa waiver program to enter the United States legally after the country was added in 2014. The Electronic System for Travel Authorization program allows citizens of some countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. Colombia is not part of the waiver program.
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