California’s Latest Safety Threat: Burglary Tourists

Known for its great weather and iconic landmarks, California has long been a magnet for domestic and international visitors looking to enjoy all the amenities the state has to offer. However, a troubling new phenomenon has emerged involving foreign intruders exploiting the United States’ lax visa and criminal justice system.

In a trend dubbed “burglary tourism” by authorities, thieves from South American countries such as Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have been involved in hundreds of break-ins throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. LAPD Deputy Chief Alan Hamilton told the Los Angeles Times that nearly 100 burglaries alone were committed north of the 118 Freeway in L.A. last year by South American theft groups.

While the issue first emerged in 2019, it has grown significantly in recent months, according to authorities. To counter the alarming spike in home break-ins, the LAPD recently formed a task force with other local agencies to target these organized burglary rings. “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 a recent Police Commission meeting.

In the case of Chile — home to many of the criminals committing these burglaries — law enforcement believes the suspects are taking advantage of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows tourists and business travelers to enter America for 90 days or less without having to obtain a visa or go through a thorough vetting process.

Chile, which the State Department describes as a “regional leader for the rule of law and economic stability,” is the only Latin American country approved for the waiver program, joining the likes of France, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

In a case dating back to August 2023, Burbank police officers arrested a 33-year-old Chilean national after a woman reported four men had broken into her home through a sliding door. One of the men, Leiva Solis, was found in a nearby yard and was suspected of four other burglaries across the city, according to court documents.

LAPD Detective Robert Hoebink said in a court declaration that Solis’ crew was linked to at least 30 burglaries in West Los Angeles alone. Hoebink added that the Chilean used a fake passport to open a bank account and wired more than $23,000 back home despite being in the U.S. on a tourist visa.

On December 27, LAPD officers picked up three more members of Solis’ suspected group in Beverly Hills. Inside their vehicle, police said they found $1 million worth of stolen designer purses, watches, clothing and jewelry — all believed to be from a single heist.

Once these foreign thieves are in the country, police say, they stake out affluent U.S. neighborhoods and ransack homes for profit, sending their valuable goods back to their home country.

Adding to the concern among residents about this growing issue is just how elaborately planned many of these heists are. Burglars have raided waterfront homes with private docks by boat and used jamming equipment to disrupt Wi-Fi networks and expensive security systems, according to FOX 11. In other cases, police have caught criminals hiding in brush and wearing ghillie suits, waiting for homeowners to leave.

Police also say that these foreign crooks often break in through the second floor, where homeowners are less likely to have alarms on their doors and windows.

“They often target homes connected to open spaces, hiking trails and canyons that give them access,” Hamilton said. “They also tend not to carry guns. They don’t want to get gun charges.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is very familiar with this type of brazen crime and has been warning the public about it since last summer.

“These are not crimes of opportunity,” he said in a press release. “These are carefully calculated and planned attacks on what should be our safe place — our homes. And when they get it wrong — and someone is home — they do whatever it takes to terrorize their victims into telling them where the money is.”

Spitzer adds that Chile has failed to conduct criminal background checks on its end for the waiver program and share information with the U.S., resulting in dangerous career criminals being treated as first-time offenders if they are caught in the act in America.

“I find the rise of burglary tourism in California deeply alarming,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “Our community members deserve to feel safe and secure in their own homes, and we stand committed to working with local law enforcement agencies to combat this invasive threat and ensure that justice is served.”