Detectives crept into the parking lot of a Days Inn in Alexandria, Virginia, one night in March and surreptitiously attached GPS trackers to a white minivan and a gray sedan, according to a search warrant.

The operation was the culmination of a yearslong investigation into a skilled burglary ring, one that authorities say netted about $2 million by focusing on a very specific target: high-end homes of Asian and Middle Eastern families in the D.C. suburbs.

The investigators didn’t know who the burglars were, but they had spent months painstakingly following a trail of digital breadcrumbs across the country to this nondescript motel off I-395.

When the vehicles pulled out with GPS devices activated, law enforcement officers soon stumbled onto something far larger than a local break-in crew. They had uncovered a sophisticated criminal phenomenon with roots in South America and a reach around the world.

Authorities call them “crime tourists.”

Law enforcement experts say cells of professional South American burglars, particularly from Colombia and Chile, are entering the country illegally or exploiting a visa waiver program meant to expedite tourism from dozens of trusted foreign countries.

Once here, they travel from state to state carrying out scores of burglaries, jewelry heists and other crimes, pilfering tens or hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods each year, the FBI estimates. Experts said the groups often operate with impunity because they have found a kind of criminal sweet spot.

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Bail for nonviolent property offenses is often low, so an arrested burglar often quickly gets bond and skips town for the next job, experts said. The crimes often don’t meet the threshold for the involvement of federal authorities. And they attract less attention at a time when U.S. authorities are contending with a rise in homicides.

Dan Heath, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s criminal investigations division, said “South American theft groups,” as the agency calls them, are a growing problem across the United States — and in countries including India, Britain and Australia, where they often employ similar tactics.

“They represent an enormous threat right now in our country,” Heath said. “They are tending to thread the needle in avoiding both state and federal prosecution.”

On a road in Great Falls, Virginia, the large brick homes top $1.5 million and sit deep on well-manicured lots. It’s here in February 2019 that a South Asian family came home one night to find their residence ransacked.

Burglars had broken through a glass door at the back of the home sometime between 5:30 and 10:30 p.m. and made off with gold jewelry and a large safe. The losses were staggering, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The pattern was quickly becoming familiar to Virginia’s Fairfax County police: an expensive home; Asian or Middle Eastern residents; a rear door or window smashed; and jewelry and luxury goods taken but expensive electronics left untouched.

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The robberies had begun four months earlier, but after nearly two dozen of them, Fairfax County police were no closer to finding the perpetrators. There would be roughly two dozen more burglaries over the next two years without much more progress. The lead detective, Samuel Song, referred to the perpetrators as “ghosts.”

Detectives would eventually conclude that the burglars were researching targets on the internet, surveilling the homes to determine the owners were away and then striking quickly, making them difficult to catch.

Detectives think Asian or Middle Eastern families were targeted because burglars believe they sometimes keep family wealth in gold and jewelry or have large amounts of money on hand because they may run businesses that rely on cash.

What Song and other investigators didn’t know at the time was that the burglaries in Fairfax County might be just the tip of a nationwide operation. Fairfax County police said authorities have linked members of the group to break-ins in Georgia, and also said they believe people associated with the cell have connections to similar cases in Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina. They weren’t talking about dozens of burglaries. They were dealing with hundreds.

And that was just one cell.

Another based in New York and New Jersey was operating in Fairfax and Maryland’s Montgomery County around the same time and employing similar methods, according to court records. Experts said many more may be circulating the country at any one time.

They often employ cunning tactics. One group in California used jammers that allowed them to block key fobs from locking cars so they could burglarize them. Others were able to identify and target traveling jewelry salesman by looking for people parking rental cars near jewelry shops and then following them.

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An FBI agent in Southern California said one cell cut power to a jewelry shop and waited overnight for the backup batteries on the alarm system to drain. The burglars then cut a hole in a roof to gain access to the store, brought in a generator and used power tools to hack open a 5,000-pound safe. They made off with $1.2 million in jewels.

Heath said cells typically consist of two to eight members who link up or were recruited in Colombia or Chile before traveling to the United States explicitly to commit crimes. Some return home after a string of burglaries, but others attempt to remain in the United States illegally and live here permanently.

Law enforcement officers said they have not found evidence the cells are connected to gangs, drug traffickers or organized crime.

In the United States, experts said many burglars obtain fraudulent Puerto Rican documents to try to disguise their true identities and avoid deportation, since Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship.

Crime tourism has been around since at least the 1990s, but it has recently seen a major expansion. Experts said they have noticed a sharp increase in Chilean crime tourists in the past five to seven years because the nation was included in a visa waiver program in 2014.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) allows citizens from 40 nations to be prescreened to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.

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Experts said those travelers undergo less scrutiny than those who have to obtain visas, and some with criminal intent take advantage of that to enter the country.

Jorge Canelas, a press attaché with the Chilean Embassy in D.C., said Chilean officials are sharing information with U.S. authorities and have stationed an investigator at the embassy to combat the problem.

Canelas said there is “active cooperation between Chilean police with American counterparts at federal and state levels, as well as continuous information and coordination between Chilean officials with Homeland Security, FBI and other agencies on this matter.”

Colombia is not part of the program, so crime tourists usually sneak into the United States illegally, overstay a visa or travel on fraudulent documents.

FBI Special Agent Daniel Gimenez in the Dallas field office said crime tourism has been lucrative for some cells, particularly those targeting jewelry salesmen. He’s found each member can make $20,000 to $100,000 per job in groups he has investigated in Texas.

“These subjects were clean subjects who lived for the most part in suburban neighborhoods in nice houses,” Gimenez said. “They have kids going to private school. They are setting up Christmas lights one week. The next [week], they are traveling to a different part of the country to rob someone.”

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Fairfax County police detectives were still grasping for clues in January 2020, when a sheriff’s deputy hundreds of miles away in suburban Atlanta stopped to help two men whose white Infiniti had broken down.

The men told the Forsyth County deputy they were Puerto Rican and one said they were driving home from his girlfriend’s house, but the deputy grew suspicious. The men were wearing warm, dark clothing and one had brush and twigs on him, according to a search warrant.

The deputy did not find any stolen items when he searched their car, but there were gloves and masks in the glove compartment, according to the search warrant. The men weren’t arrested, but they were now on law enforcement’s radar.

A month later, both were charged following a break-in attempt in the same county. This would turn out to be the break investigators in Fairfax County had long been hoping for.

Song, the lead detective, had already turned to an investigative tool that has exploded in popularity in recent years. He filed a search warrant with Google for a list of all registered mobile devices that had been active in a zone around a handful of the Fairfax County homes that had been burglarized.

Two of the cellphone numbers that were returned matched those of the two men who were arrested near Atlanta, according to a search warrant. More probing showed one of the men had used his debit card to purchase screwdrivers and flashlights near the sites of two of the Fairfax County burglaries, according to a search warrant.

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Cellphone data would reveal an additional surprise: The men appeared to still be active after their arrests.

Song began tracking one man’s phone. It was pinging in Houston, but Song testified during a preliminary hearing that he watched it move state by state from Texas to Virginia in late March.

Police sprang into action.

Song assembled a surveillance team and stationed them in the area around Fairfax City, where there had been a number of burglaries, he later testified. Police hoped to finally catch the burglars in the act.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on March 27, a member of the team spotted a white Chrysler minivan near where the phone was pinging, Song testified. One of the occupants of the vehicle appeared to be one of the men arrested outside Atlanta.

The surveillance team eventually followed the minivan and a Chrysler sedan driving with it to the Days Inn in Alexandria, Song testified. Song got a warrant that night to outfit the vehicles with GPS devices, which allow more precise tracking.

The surveillance team resumed following the vehicles the next day, following them at a distance into an upscale Vienna, Virginia, neighborhood. Soon after, a South Asian homeowner who was vacationing in Chicago got an alert from her home camera system and pulled up the feed on her phone, the woman later said in an interview.

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“I saw two guys on the video in ski masks,” she said.

She notified police.

Fairfax County police confirmed that a break-in happened at her 6,000-square-foot home before they stopped the minivan and sedan nearby. Song testified that police found necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry that belonged to the Vienna homeowners in a bag underneath a seat.

All four men in the vehicles were arrested: Mario Valencia Asprilla, Jhonny Valencia-Valencia, Diego Montano Chasoy and Freddy Hernandez Angulo. All four turned out to be Colombian, police said. A fifth member of the group, Josue Rodriguez Rolon, was arrested in June. It remains unclear how they entered the country.

Rolon got out on bond and is now considered a fugitive, and Montano Chasoy was deported, but the other three remain in custody, according to court records. Attorneys for the men declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. All three are scheduled to stand trial this year in Fairfax court on multiple burglary charges and other counts.

All told, police allege the cell has been linked to more than 50 burglaries with $2 million in loses locally. The other ring that was operating in Fairfax County and Montgomery counties was tied to nearly 50 others totaling $1.6 million, authorities say. Members of the latter ring have been convicted in Montgomery County.

The victim in the Vienna burglary said the experience has left her family afraid. She spoke on the condition that she not be identified for fear her home might be struck again.

“They don’t just take your material,” she said. “They take your safety.”