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It is impossible to predict where the gangs will hit. Government and financial databases hold little or no information on the immigrant crooks, so the cops can't track their movements electronically. Informants are rare. The police have very few effective weapons in their arsenal.
"We send out undercover details looking for them, but you can't do that every day," Marovitch says. "It's boring."
He notes that even when his undercovers, led by Inspector Mark Gamble, spot Hispanic males in the vicinity of jewelry stores, they can't just pull them over. The officers follow the suspects, waiting for them to make a hit. More often than not, however, a second carload of robbers is on the lookout for the undercovers. When the police tails are spotted, the robbers drive away. ("Gamble is good, but the crooks are very good," LAPD Detective Woodings says.)
The cops can stop the robbers for violating traffic laws. When they find a gun in the car, one person will claim it and submit to arrest. Even so, Marovitch says, "these guys don't usually go to jail. They bail out and that's the last we see of them. Unless there is a murder, they normally get bailed."
A few years ago, a jewelers association hired a Washington, D.C., law firm to lobby Congress for some relief from the rash of robberies. In response to political pressure, the FBI set up a small task force, based in L.A. The task force has had limited success: It located several inner-city car rental businesses used by the robbers and arrested a handful of thieves and local fences. But such tactics have done little except drive the crooks onto the freeway system in search of cop-free zones.
Marovitch does not have very high regard for the FBI's task force, which he says ignores San Francisco. "The feds don't know how to do surveillance," Marovitch complains. "We need a RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization] investigation to go to the source. [RICO prosecutions allow government agencies such as the FBI, DEA, INS, and IRS to pool their resources against organized rings of lawbreakers.]
"There are 740 of these bad guys in Los Angeles," Marovitch gripes. "Even if we kill 10 a year, it will take 74 years to wipe them out. We need to set examples. They aren't citizens. Don't let them back into the country after we deport them. Put them in jails without TVs. Give them food, water, keep them clean -- like at Guantánamo Bay.
"We need to treat them like a criminal enterprise. We need wiretaps. The problem is that nobody is pissed off enough at them. It's a business write-off [for the jewelry companies]. They are like a cancer in the country."
The SFPD keeps in touch with Woodings in Los Angeles. "He has a database," Marovitch says.
Woodings, however, laughs when the "database" is mentioned. "We do things the old-fashioned way -- with inventory cards. We would like to be computerized.
"The arrest rate is not high," Woodings admits. He estimates that about 35 suspects a year are caught in L.A., though he does not keep definitive records on numbers of arrests and convictions.
In fact, hard information about the theft groups is difficult to come by anywhere. The FBI claims on its Web site that it established a Jewelry and Gem Major Theft Program in the early 1990s, with "a computerized database, [with] which the FBI collects and analyzes reports of [jewelry] robberies nationwide and disseminates information to federal, state, and local law enforcement." That appears to be more hype than reality.
The agency's spokesman in San Francisco says that "headquarters" maintains the statistics. But a Washington, D.C., spokeswoman says the FBI does not keep statistics on jewelry robbery; she suggested contacting the Jewelers' Security Alliance in New York. The JSA, an industry group, only keeps track of number of robberies and amount stolen; it does not monitor arrests and convictions.
Convictions have been hard to get, in part because the gangs are so insular. Woodings desperately needs informers. "[The gangs] are networked around family blood ties. When we catch them, they are fearful of talking. You can see it in their eyes, which get all glassy. They want to talk, but it's too dangerous."
Ken Walsh, professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University, says, "The police are stymied, up against something that makes them look bad; it's embarrassing. Cops rarely solve these crimes through sheer detective work. But the groups are hard to penetrate. The sheer brutality of their leadership is fantastic. They will not hesitate to cut off your hand, stick a knife in your eye, hurt your family."
Many cops are also angry at the "technicalities" that keep them from catching bad guys. SFPD Inspector Robert Paco -- a soft-spoken cop with a flinty gaze -- keeps track of SATG activities in San Francisco. He says that a local ordinance -- what he calls the "sanctuary clause" -- "thwarts" apprehension of "the Colombians." (The ordinance prohibits the SFPD from enforcing immigration laws or working with the INS. It was passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1989 in the wake of a massive roundup of illegal aliens in the Mission District.) Paco says if he could stop suspicious cars full of Hispanic males and arrest them for not having proper immigration papers, he could put a big dent in the jewelry robberies.