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A security yard sign in an Olivenhain neighborhood. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
A security yard sign in an Olivenhain neighborhood. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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Rural Encinitas homeowners join forces to thwart ‘burglary tourists’

ENCINITAS — Homeowners in rural Encinitas are working together to protect their homes from the growing threat of “burglary tourists.”

Recently, several homes in Olivenhain have been burglarized by criminals belonging to a vast international theft group that has captured the attention of the FBI for its coordinated targeting of hundreds of wealthy households in the U.S.

“Burglary tourists” are criminals who enter the country on tourist visas for the sole purpose of committing crimes, namely various types of theft (burglary, robbery, fraud, etc.).

In Encinitas, homes that border open spaces, backwoods trails and access roads are particularly vulnerable, making places like Olivenhain attractive targets for burglars. The neighborhood’s rural network of less-traveled roadways and footpaths can serve as entry points and escape routes without attracting attention.

However, some neighbors in these areas have banded together to thwart burglary tourists, establishing a group communication thread that allows them to relay information quickly.

“All the neighbors have come together,” said Olivenhain resident Lynn McComas, who lives near a trail that extends into Carlsbad. “We constantly message each other. We let each other know when we’re going out of town and when we’ll return.”

McComas has been lucky and has not personally been a victim of these highly coordinated burglary rings.  She credits her dogs, security cameras, gates and monitors for keeping the criminals at bay. But others living nearby haven’t been so fortunate. 

One of many public trails that run through neighborhoods in rural Encinitas. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
One of many public trails that run through neighborhoods in Olivenhain. Recently, the area has seen an uptick in home break-ins perpetuated by South American criminal rings. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

According to McComas, while a nearby family was visiting relatives, they watched in real-time on surveillance cameras as burglars entered the home and stole their late mother’s jewelry.

McComas said another neighbor was left “terrified and traumatized” after men broke into her home through her daughter’s bedroom window. No one was home at the time of the incident. 

The recent break-ins aren’t the first time Encinitas and surrounding areas have had trouble with South American theft rings. In 2022, the sheriff’s department reported that a South American crime ring was behind a string of North County burglaries targeting affluent neighborhoods in Rancho Sante Fe, Del Mar, Encinitas, northern Poway and 4S Ranch.

Burglary tourists

According to the FBI, many thieves are believed to have entered the U.S. from South America, namely Chile, on a tourist visa as part of a visa waiver program. Under the program, citizens from 41 countries can visit the states for up to 90 days for tourism and business purposes.

Authorities have said the sophisticated crime ring typically comprises individuals from the South American countries of Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. However, Chile is the only country in South America eligible for this type of waiver. 

Before they travel, all foreign national visitors are screened using the internet-based Electronic System for Travel Authorization to assess whether they pose a law enforcement or security risk. 

If approved, visitors can enter the country on a 90-day tourist visa, suggesting that some individuals who later join international crime rings likely have no previous criminal record or use fake passports and stolen identities to take advantage of the waiver program.

International theft groups, many of whose members law enforcement has linked to Chilean nationals, usually target homes in affluent neighborhoods when homeowners are out of town. The group is known to wear camouflage and ghillie suits, jam wi-fi signals to disrupt security alarm systems and conduct surveillance to learn their victims’ schedules.

Surveillance video shows members of a South American theft ring breaking into a North County home in 2021. Screenshot
Surveillance video shows members of a South American theft ring breaking into a North County home in 2021. Screenshot

Some burglars have even used boats to raid waterfront homes via private docks.

After breaking into a residence, the thieves typically focus on the master bedroom and take high-end jewelry, accessories, and cash. The criminal groups reportedly wire their stolen proceeds back to their home countries.

The FBI warns these rings are also likely responsible for “distraction robberies” at grocery stores and other commercial centers, removing credit cards from a victim’s wallet to purchase pre-paid gift cards.

In May 2023, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office announced that more than 140 defendants, including 24 belonging to five different burglary crews, had been charged in the last year with committing home invasion robberies, commercial burglaries, and smash-and-grab robberies.

McComas said she wants Chile removed from the list of countries allowed to participate in the visa waiver program to prevent the growing epidemic of burglary tourism. 

“The bad guys are winning this. Even if they’re caught, they’re just let go,” McComas said. “We have to make ourselves unattractive for burglars because they’re out there and winning this game.”

Knowledge, communication, and prevention are critical in the ongoing battle to protect families and homes from burglaries and theft. On that front, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has been sending fliers to at-risk households, encouraging people to up their security. 

A rural access road in Olivenhain. The rural area of Encinitas is rife with the types of backwoods trails, access roads and open spaces that South American theft rings have exploited across Southern California over the last several years. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
A rural access road in Olivenhain. The area is crisscrossed with the types of backwoods trails, access roads and open spaces that South American burglary rings have exploited across Southern California. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

“The key is making your house look like there’s someone there at all times,” said Sheriff’s Det. Heather Aguirre.

Aguirre noted that law enforcement agencies in Encinitas and Carlsbad are working together to help keep properties and property owners safe. Residents are urged to lock all their doors, install surveillance cameras with multiple angles, including backdoor coverage, and add floodlights. 

Other measures include:

  • Installing surveillance cameras inside your home, such as hallways and living spaces
  • Equipping outdoor lights with timers
  • Installing security screens on glass windows
  • Bolting down safes to the ground and putting tracking devices in smaller safes that can’t be secured
  • Request home information to be taken off websites
  • Ask the sheriff’s office for safety tips on how to protect your home while on vacation

The sheriff’s department is also launching the Safe Cities program, allowing homeowners and businesses to register their security devices (Ring cameras, etc.) with law enforcement, who can access and review video footage if a crime is committed.

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