By Corinne Murdock |
Transnational organized crime is on the rise in the Valley; South American Theft Groups (SATGs) are the suspected culprits behind a string of burglaries in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Paradise Valley, Chandler, Gilbert, Peoria, and unincorporated areas of Maricopa County.
SATGs, also known as “crime tourists,” are nationals from Chile and other South American countries that exploit tourist visas in order to obtain and transport stolen goods internationally. Up until recent years, SATGs were known to operate mainly in Los Angeles and New York City.
Federal agents have offered different estimates on the emergence of SATGs. An FBI special agent told Vanity Fair in 2022 that California’s troubles with SATGs began in 2016; in that same spate of interviews, another special agent claimed that the SATG plague began in 2014 after Chile joined the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program. Chile is the only South American country in the program.
The ESTA program automatically grants 90-day visas to South American countries’ citizens with clean background checks. These program authorizations are valid for multiple trips over a period of two years.
As agents told Vanity Fair, these SATG criminals likely have “clean” background checks because they use “fictitious documents, IDs, residency cards” to claim legal presence. As a result, SATG members generally register no criminal record.
Scottsdale Councilwoman Tammy Caputi advised in a press release last week that law enforcement agencies across the cities and towns are running surveillance operations to apprehend the SATGs including cameras, fixed and moving positions, aircraft, and K9 units.
The agencies also plan to convene for further coordination efforts on Wednesday, with the possibility of a multi-agency burglary task force.
Further, the FBI assigned an agent to coordinate response efforts to the crime trend.
In December, the FBI testified on SATGs at a congressional hearing regarding the uptick in organized retail crime. In order to address SATGs, the FBI leads task forces through its Major Theft Program (MTP).
In last week’s press release, Scottsdale Police estimated that this recent string of robberies began around last October. Police estimated at least 22 burglaries were the result of SATGs, with the latest occurring last week.
Scottsdale Police reported that it had conducted seven surveillance operations to apprehend the burglars, with an eighth planned for Tuesday night. Law enforcement also disclosed that they obtained physical evidence as well as camera footage from several of the burglaries.
Law enforcement noted that the burglaries were usually occurring Thursdays through Saturdays from 5-10 p.m. The burglars have primarily targeted homes adjacent to a wash.
One of the earliest to speak out on the burglary spree was Scottsdale City Council candidate Jan Dubauskas. On Monday, Dubauskas issued a press release warning of the import of the sudden uptick in crime.
“This is a crime spree and it’s not happening in a far-off blue city like San Francisco. It’s in our own backyard,” said Dubauskas. “Scottsdale is being targeted. We chose to live here because of the sense of safety and protection and that has been shattered.”
Dubauskas further urged the community to engage in neighborhood watches, and expressed confidence in local police’s ability to apprehend the perpetrators.
“We need to come together to protect our homes and ensure these thieves are caught and brought to justice,” said Dubauskas. “Thankfully, we have an all-star Police Department here in Scottsdale that is bringing the community in and making this a top priority. They’re some of the best in the country.”
Valley law enforcement are becoming more familiar with recognizing and catching SATGs. Around this time last year, 12 News reported on Scottsdale investigators prosecuting a crime syndicate that reportedly hit homes in Arizona, California, Texas, Nevada, and Utah in 2022.