Organized break-and-enter gangs arrive as tourists and target Canadian neighbourhoods
There is a new type of tourist coming to Canada, one that is not interested in seeing the sights this country has to offer, but in burglarizing houses, particularly in affluent neighbourhoods.
These break-and-enter artists are part of an international crime wave that police say has roots in South America, has crossed the Atlantic targeting several European countries, and is now making its way to North America. It’s a disturbing trend that international law enforcement agencies reveal is getting bigger and more organized.
In the United States, the FBI even has a name for it: “Crime Tourism.”
Police agencies in Canada, the U.S. and Europe report that most of these uninvited visitors are Chilean. They do not require a visa to enter Canada as a tourist.
W5 contacted police forces across Canada and found examples of crime tourism from coast to coast.
One of the earliest examples was in 2015, when Toronto police arrested 12 Chileans and laid over 97 charges.
In Revelstoke, B.C., RCMP arrested three Chileans who were in possession of thousands of dollars in stolen jewelry and cash.
In Montreal at least six Chileans were arrested by police. They were part of a gang, police say, stole more than $210,000 in cash and jewelry from one house alone.
In October 2019, York Regional Police, a police force which operates near Toronto, arrested three Chileans and laid more than 60 charges.
One of the biggest crime tourism busts in Canada occurred in 2018, when police in Halton Region, just west of Toronto, arrested 15 Chileans as part of an operation codenamed “Project Estruendo.” Four hundred burglaries were linked to a single crime ring.
One of those homes belonged to Caitlin Crawford. In an interview with W5 she recounted coming home to find the lock on her back door broken and the door wide open. Besides the loss of personal items, what troubles her the most is the sense of violation.
“Having strangers in our home and especially in our kids bedrooms. That part was really sickening,” said Crawford.
Det. Sgt. Paul Foley of the Halton Regional Police Service told W5 “this was by far the biggest and probably most successful” case he has worked on while leading the Criminal Investigations Bureau.
Foreign burglars “come in, they essentially parachute into the community, they’ll target different neighbourhoods across the Greater Toronto Area,” said Foley, recounting the methods used by the criminals. After they’ve burgled a home the thieves either pawn the stolen goods or mail them back to Chile.
“We were able to get evidence to suggest that they were wiring money back home. Presumably that’s from pawning out property,” said Foley.
In the end, Project Estruendo recovered $2.7 million worth of stolen goods. Fourteen Chileans were convicted of breaking-and-entering offences. Most pleaded guilty and were deported back to Chile.
INTERNATIONAL TOURISM CRIME
Foley’s experience mirrors that of police half a world away in the Netherlands, who have been watching organized break-and-enter gangs come into Europe via Spain and then rob their way across the continent. Dutch police have established a special task force to fight the crime tourists.
Officer Nick Kenbeek took the W5 team on a tour of the suburban Amsterdam neighbourhoods that are targeted by the criminals. They are very similar to the suburban neighbourhoods surrounding Canadian cities, with residents away at work during the day when the criminals strike.
According to Kenbeek, the criminals appear to be a step ahead of law enforcement.
“We know when people are arrested by us the organized crime kicks in,” said Kenbeek. “They take the people, bring them back to Chile and new ones are flying in.”
”It’s difficult because of how transient they are. It’s difficult to monitor them within Canada,” said Det. Sgt. Foley.
DETECTING THESE CRIMINALS
The transient nature of these criminals puts the onus on the Canada Border Services Agency to filter these would-be criminals from entering Canada in the first place.
W5 asked Public Safety Minister Bill Blair how these Chilean criminals can get into Canada, past immigration and customs officers.
In a written statement, the Office of the Minister of Public Safety said: “Government’s greatest responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. While we cannot comment on the specifics of any one case or file, we understand that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is aware of possible South American theft groups in Canada and has developed an effective program to identify and intercept these groups to ensure the continued safety of all Canadians.”
The statement did not elaborate on what the program is, or how its effectiveness is determined.
Foley believes “there is no golden ticket that’s going to solve it.”
“Can we stop crime tourism? I doubt we can stop crime tourism, but what I do think is if we continue to work together with all the partners we can help reduce it.”
There are few things authorities say homeowners can do to protect themselves from burglars:
- When out, leave the lights or a TV on to make it look like the house is occupied.
- Have a neighbour clear the snow and collect mail if you are expected to be away for a prolonged period of time.
- Be a good neighbour and report any suspicious activity to local police.