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Bouchard calls for Visa Waiver Program changes as international gangs target high-end homes

Posted at 6:36 PM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 23:24:22-04

PONTIAC, Mich. (WXYZ) — From California to Arizona to Florida and right here in metro Detroit, teams of burglars from South America are targeting high-end homes across the country, stealing millions in cash, jewelry and more.

In Oakland County, Sheriff Michael Bouchard has seen more of these thefts than any other county in the state. At one point, he says crews were stealing $1 million per week.

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“For the average burglar, it’s much more of a crime of opportunity. These people study their potential target, try to determine when you're not home and make that their attack point,” Bouchard said.

Last year, the sheriff announced the creation of a task force with more than 20 local, state and federal agencies dedicated to the problem in Southeast Michigan.

VIDEO: Oakland County Sheriff warns of more high-end home invasions

Oakland County Sheriff warns of more high-end home invasions

“I think the heat was turned up significantly and they vacated our region," Bouchard said of the press conference and attention brought to the case. "But we knew it was probably a temporary reprieve and it's turned out to be that.”

Right now, Bouchard estimates 100 theft crews are operating simultaneously across the country, including metro Detroit, working in teams of three to six people. Each person is assigned a role and they come wearing masks and carrying backpacks full of tools. They also use technology that can jam Wi-Fi cameras and alarm systems.

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“How difficult does that make it for you as law enforcement?" I asked Bouchard.

"Super tough," he responded. "Because there's no operational intelligence in our area. We just know when we start getting burglaries.”

Bouchard says one of the biggest questions is where they’re being trained and who’s training them. But one thing they do know is where they’re coming from.

michael bouchard and brett kast
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard talks with 7 News Detroit reporter Brett Kast.

“In Oakland County, two different teams have been arrested and 100% of them are from Chile,” Bouchard said.

But why Chile? Bouchard believes the answer lies in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows up to 90-day travel between the U.S. and 41 other countries without obtaining a visa. The only South American country on that list is Chile, which qualified in 2014.

Related: Busted: 3 members of an international crime ring that burglarized high-end homes across Michigan apprehended

“One hundred percent of the ones we arrested here have violated the Visa Waiver Program, so it’s not rocket science to say that's a problem. We should stop this,” Bouchard said of Chile's status in the program. "I’ve talked to people in Congress, I've talked to people in the administration and in Homeland Security... no one has said they’re going to pause it... I would like it paused immediately."

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The Department of Homeland Security responded to our request for comment with a statement saying:

“DHS remains deeply concerned with some individuals from South America who travel to the United States and engage in criminal activity, such as South American Theft Groups (SATG). DHS and our federal partners have actively engaged with all levels of the Government of Chile to address this issue and have communicated the urgency of the situation. Chilean officials have responded by improving operational cooperation with DHS offices in efforts to detect, deter, and prevent travel to the united states by known criminal actors.”

We also reached out to Congresswoman Haley Stevens, whose district saw a number of the break-ins. Her office declined an interview but sent a statement that said:

“The crime ring targeting Oakland County homes must be stopped. I have faith that our law enforcement and legal systems will deal swiftly with the perpetrators when they’re caught and deter further bad actors.”

“They're trying to avoid confrontation is what it seems like, but is there any fear that what could happen if there is a confrontation, if people are home?" I asked Bouchard. "Is this a safety concern too?"

"This is 100% a safety concern," Bouchard said. "If you’re willing to come into someone else's house in the nighttime, who knows what your motive is? So you can’t presume it’s nonviolent and if you’re home, they’re going to run.”

Related: Oakland County burglaries hitting upscale homes, names ‘everybody would know’