The Perfect Crime

For 20 years, South American thieves have been stealing millions of dollars in gems and jewelry from traveling salespeople in San Francisco. And no one -- not the cops, jewelers, or insurance companies -- has the slightest idea how to stop them.

"I pulled my car into a strip mall in California last year," says the traveling salesman, whose business takes him all over the state, including to San Francisco. "It was hot. The windows were closed. The A/C was blasting. A car pulled up behind, boxing me in. A man, a Latino, pointed a gun at me, screaming, "Don't do anything!' He busted my window with a hammer, reached in, unlocked the doors, demanded my cell phone. Another guy grabbed my bag from the back, with about a half-million dollars' worth of jewelry inside. They ran back to a car, escaped. It was all over in about 20 seconds."

The salesman -- let's call him "Ian" -- says, "I'm not looking for sympathy. I knew the risks. My insurance covered the loss. I took a couple months off and went back to work."

Ian is one of 231 traveling jewelry salesmen who were robbed last year in the United States of goods worth upward of $30 million. California has by far the highest rate of jewelry heists in the nation. In San Francisco, such robberies take place an average of once every six weeks. In fact, since January 2000, gangs have robbed 17 traveling salespeople in the city of $6.5 million.

"I view the San Francisco Bay Area as a hotbed of this type of crime," says Ian. "The I-5 corridor is the perfect getaway route."

Most of the Bay Area crimes have been committed by organized bands of jewelry robbers, based in Los Angeles and composed primarily of illegal aliens from Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. The gangs, which the FBI has dubbed "South American Theft Groups," or SATGs, have operated for more than 20 years, roaming the state preying on jewelry salesmen and stealing as much as $20 million a year in precious gems and wearable treasure.

Yet remarkably, very little is being done to deter them. The thieves' elusive, loosely connected groups have easily adapted to every new security measure thrown at them. Law enforcement has been baffled by their methods, which experts say are typical of a relatively new type of international crime organization. The jewelers themselves have been wary of drawing attention to the crimes. Insurance companies simply raise their premiums.

In the ecology of crime, the jewel thieves seem to have found a perfect evolutionary niche. Not a single one of the salesmen, jewelers, insurers, cops, or criminologists interviewed for this story said there is any real possibility the South American Theft Groups can be stopped. In fact, several experts said a crackdown might only make the problem worse, by escalating the violence or allowing even more virulent crime groups to take over.


THE CRIMINALS

Spotters, Stalkers, and Attack Teams

Last August, a gang of thieves stole $25,000 in jewelry, at knifepoint, from a salesman in Santa Maria, according to a federal indictment filed in San Francisco last fall. Two weeks later, the same gang robbed a salesman traveling through San Francisco, at gunpoint, making off with $200,000 in jewels. A week later, they stuck up a salesman in Sacramento, netting jewelry valued at $50,000. On Aug. 29, the gang hit another jackpot: ripping off half a million in precious baubles from three salesmen from Hong Kong who had just finished showing their line to retailers at San Francisco's Jewelry Mart & Gift Center on Brannan Street. The hungry salesmen had driven to the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant in Millbrae. Three "Hispanic males" trapped them in the car, broke the glass on the driver's side with the butt of a semiautomatic pistol, grabbed the jewels, took their cell phones, and drove away in two vans.

This story is no different from hundreds of other jewelry heists, except in one respect -- two suspects were arrested. A few blocks from the crime scene, an off-duty San Francisco fireman saw the robbers transfer a plastic trash bag from one van to the other. Suspicious, he wrote down a license plate number, which was traced to H&S Auto Sales in Los Angeles, a place frequented by Jorge Humberto Zamora-Suárez. Two of the victims identified a photograph of Zamora-Suárez. An FBI-LAPD task force tailed their suspect; they watched him lug "heavy dark bags" into a motel room, which was occupied by Esteban Calderón, a Queens, N.Y.-based jeweler who was already being investigated by the task force for possible involvement in fencing stolen jewelry. Police arrested Zamora-Suárez and Calderón, seizing thousands of pieces of jewelry, including the take from the Hong Kong salesmen. The two suspects are awaiting trial in federal court, charged with conspiring to transport stolen goods across state lines. Zamora-Suárez is also charged with using a gun to rob the Chinese salesmen.

Calderón's attorney, Marlene Gerdst of Beverly Hills, says her client, who is out on bail, simply came upon the scene and has no knowledge of the stolen goods. Zamora-Suárez was denied bail as a flight risk. His attorney did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

LAPD Detective Michael Woodings was involved in the Calderón and Zamora-Suárez capture. He is the nation's leading expert on the South American Theft Groups. "These gangs are fueled by a constant tide of new people from Bogotá. Holes in the [immigration] system allow them to come and go from the U.S. on fraudulent visas, or "wet' through Nogales. They disappear in the major cities." The gangsters do not bother to disguise themselves when they make a hit. Their fingerprints are usually not on file; they trade identities with ease. They seem to operate quite independently of other South American gangs in the United States that specialize in different forms of crime, such as selling narcotics. The jewel thieves come to America because, to echo bank robber Willie Sutton, "That's where the money is." And, more important, they are unlikely to be caught.

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