Targeting International Jewel Thieves
These criminals strike swiftly. They’re usually armed and not afraid to shoot. Their favorite targets are jewelry stores and their couriers.
Who are they? Organized jewel thieves from South American countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. They’re so well established we’ve given them a name: South American Theft Groups.
A few facts about them:
- They’ve been operating in the U.S. for more than 30 years; most members are here illegally.
- Groups are often made of immigrants from the same hometown, are tight-knit, and are difficult to infiltrate.
- The crews are extremely mobile, moving from city to city and even country to country in search of new victims.
- They are highly skilled, with numerous methods for stealing high-end jewelry. In Operation Cut and Run, for example, crews cut apart display cases and stole the contents in broad daylight.
Breaking in. Groups initiate members by testing their skills in low-risk and nonviolent crimes, like picking pockets and other petty theft, according to Special Agent Daniel X. McCaffrey, who works jewelry theft cases in our New York division. Once proven, novices can move up to become the get-away driver or lookout for bigger hauls and to the most sought-after position as jewelry courier robber.
How do we stop these groups? Increasingly, with proactive measures.
For example: South American groups often target traveling gem and jewelry shows, like those held three times a year in Miami Beach, Florida. No wonder: an estimated $3 BILLION worth of jewelry, gems, precious metals, and cash are on hand at each show.
At a trade show, crews have someone inside who watches the sales people and couriers to find the best target. They relay details back to a crew waiting outside. They are patient and meticulous.
“They do their homework. This isn’t a corner convenience store robbery,” says Special Agent Noel Gil, who works the multi-agency South American Theft Group Task Force based out of our Miami office. “They know these jewelry guys are walking around with a quarter-million, a half-million, or even $1 million in gems and jewelry.”
Crews often target people carrying a lot of smaller loose diamonds and gold, because they are easier to fence. Big pieces of jewelry are easier to trace, and most bigger diamonds are laser inscribed, McCaffrey says. On average, a crew can sell stolen goods to their fences for between 20 percent and 30 percent of the retail value.
Bling sting. To stop these groups, the task forces uses proactive measures, such as relying on informants and arresting crew members on any viable charge, including fake ID and immigration violations.
“We saturated the area with law enforcement. Anything suspicious we see we go after,” Gil says. At a recent show, the task force arrested four members of different South American Theft Groups. “We had no robberies or burglaries at the last two shows.”
In addition to the FBI, the task force includes officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Coral Gables Police Department, the Miami Beach Police Department, and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The task force is a good example of teamwork and proactive thinking stopping crime before it ever takes place.
- FBI Jewelry and Gem program
- Gate Cutters Theft Case