Goochland County Virginia April 11, 2023 Blooming cherry trees dot the entrance to the Rivergate community in eastern Goochland County, just off Patterson Avenue.
Behind the secure front gate sits multi-million-dollar homes. Homes authorities now believe an international group of thieves has been targeting.
In December 2022, January 2023, and early March, Goochland Sheriff’s deputies said a group known as the South American Theft Group broke into three different Rivergate homes.
In each instance, the thieves forced their way into the homes through back patio doors.
The burglary ring is made up of people who travel to the U.S. on tourist visas, and law enforcement across the nation said they have been responsible for millions of dollars in property theft over the past several years.
A resident of Rivergate, whose home was not targeted, spoke to CBS 6 about the thefts but asked their identity not be revealed. They have lived in the community since the early 2000s.
“Oh, no! This is sacred land. Nothing like the ever,” the resident said. “Alarmed, unnerved, and perturbed. And curious, just sort of wanting to know more.”
Goochland deputies said they were partnering with law enforcement nationwide and the FBI to investigate these break-ins. Deputies could not release more details, they said, citing the ongoing investigation.
Officials said the first groups began operating in the U.S. in 2014 and have targeted high-end homes across the country, from coast to coast.
The magazine reported that many of the burglars originate from Chile, and the groups might be connected to a broader criminal syndicate. Most of the burglaries happen at times or periods when people were clearly not home.
They target money, jewelry, and high-priced fashion, according to the report.
Goochland officials said anyone with information about the break-ins here should contact their office at 804-556-5349. Officials said the incidents serve as a reminder to make sure their homes are secure, alarm systems armed, and jewelry or valuables are secured.
Vanity Fair recently published an extensive investigation into “tourist burglars.”
The trap was set.
On an icy evening—January 21, 2020—the four suspects were about to step right into it. “We had everything planned out,” says the lead detective on the case.
That’s Jesus Bonilla, of the Nassau County Police. The detective recalls the tension he felt as he waited with other officers on a residential street in College Point, Queens. For months he had been pursuing a four-member crew that included its reputed leader, Bryan Herrera Maldonado. Though only 24, he was said to be among the most wanted burglars in the New York City area. Bonilla estimates that Maldonado’s gang broke into at least 100 private homes across the country. They allegedly stole cash, jewelry, electronics, watches, and designer clothes and handbags—loot Bonilla believes amounted to millions—from mansions in towns like Bronxville, Greenwich, Hewlett Harbor, Old Westbury, and Sands Point. But that was just a fraction of the haul Maldonado was alleged to have swiped on a “theft tour” across the U.S. and in various countries around the world.
8 p.m. Maldonado and his accomplices pulled up at a modest, two-story house a block away from a park that juts out into the treacherous waters where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. Less than two hours earlier, the crew had allegedly hit an estate in Saddle River, New Jersey, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. While ransacking the place, he and his team didn’t know the police were staking out Maldonado’s rented home in Queens.
“We had them,” says Bonilla, 46, a peppery-talking ex-Marine and first-generation Salvadoran American whose barrel chest stretches his suit jacket. In one of our numerous calls, Bonilla declares, “I’m a very passionate guy.” And so he was that night.
According to Bonilla, Maldonado’s was just one of about a dozen theft gangs Bonilla and his colleagues were chasing—and, in some cases, still do. But because many of the burglars are well versed in police practices, they always seem to be one step ahead of the law. Almost to a man (and, occasionally, woman), they originate in Chile before flying to a designated country, generally on a 90-day tourist visa. Once overseas, they move from city to city, committing crimes, fencing their goods, and sending home their illicit gains—before returning to Chile and, many times, heading out on the road again. “Some come here to work every day,” Bonilla asserts. In fact, one member of Maldonado’s team had landed in the U.S. just two days earlier.
For Bonilla, grabbing Maldonado that night would be the big prize. Bonilla explains that private investigators had traced Maldonado’s alleged path to the New York City area. “His cell stole $5 million, easy,” Bonilla contends.
Arriving at the College Point house, Maldonado went inside before returning to open the door for an accomplice. When Bonilla saw Maldonado, he and a scrum of cops descended on the pair—shouting, guns drawn.
“And then,” Bonilla says, “everything went to shit.”
Lately, violent crime has been surging in cities around the U.S. But more than a year ago, I got interested in how our globalized economy affects property crime. It became quickly apparent that many successful criminals—no different than their counterparts in aboveboard enterprises—can now move almost seamlessly between countries. Yet unlike people in legitimate businesses, thieves have to figure out where the best pickings are, how to deal with local cops, and, once they steal something, how to transfer the proceeds home without getting caught. That led me to spend months reporting on Maldonado after he became the focus of police scrutiny in the New York City region, and I learned he was imprisoned, serendipitously, several miles from where I live. He turns out to have been an unusually adroit burglar and one with a prototypical life story of a very particular type of globe-trotting break-in artist. More importantly, his story, and those of other alleged thieves I tracked, gave me a handle on the operations of a network of gangsters who have been systematically plundering wealthy citizens worldwide. Until now, that bigger picture has not been laid out in full.
Maldonado and his crew, for all their purportedly pilfered millions, turn out to be little more than bit players in a global explosion of a very particular sort of crime. (Maldonado refused to comment for this story despite repeatedly being offered an opportunity to participate.) The criminals have become so pervasive that they have earned a moniker among law enforcement officials as “Chilean tourist burglars”—although some call them South American theft groups or “crime tourists,” acknowledging overlaps with other nationalities within the crews. In the coming months, according to an inside source, federal teams are set to fan out and come down hard on the thieves, hoping to finger the shadowy figures they believe oversee the operations: Chilean ringleaders back home and in the U.S. as well as their partners—Colombian coordinators and fences, who manage to turn the stolen caches into cash. But first, some background.
“The wave [in California] has been going on since 2016,” a Los Angeles special agent with the FBI tells me. He heads up a regional police interagency group in Southern California that targets the bandits; his office also acts as an informal national clearinghouse feeding information about the gangs to local police departments.
Detective Sergeant Michael Maher, supervisor of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Major Crimes Bureau Burglary-Robbery Task Force, recalls how, that year, he began receiving frequent reports of early-evening house break-ins. A pattern emerged. The thieves only struck empty houses and, as a rule, were unarmed. The properties were out of sight of neighbors, often bordering undeveloped hillsides, golf courses, or parks. Most often, the bandits came in from the back of the residence and entered through the second story, avoiding alarms. And they frequently went for massive mansions. “The homes,” Maher says, “had values of $15 million, not $1 million…. It’s common that one burglary will yield $100,000. Do that once a day for six months, it’s a very lucrative industry.”
After viewing surveillance footage of the break-ins, he tells me, “we began to develop a common picture of the burglars. They were younger and not very big. They dressed all in black, wore gloves, and carried backpacks.” Following a few arrests, he says, “we found out they tended to be Chileans.” After being alerted by police elsewhere in California to large numbers of similar crimes and learning that law enforcement officials in other wealthy Western countries were also busting large numbers of Chileans for the same types of break-ins, “a lightbulb went on.” Maher concludes, “This is truly an international crime trend.”
His task force, he calculates, has made more than a thousand arrests for what he terms “organized burglaries”; this past year, he says, “the trend has been gaining steam.” In 2019, prior to the COVID outbreak, investigators with the LAPD and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office reportedly attributed hundreds of local crimes to Chilean crews. According to Maher, during the height of the pandemic, when people remained at home, the pace of the break-ins slackened, but smash-and-grab jobs skyrocketed. Lately, the home invasions have rebounded. And back east, says Bonilla, who has become a leading figure investigating the gangs, “affluent neighborhoods are getting destroyed right now.”
According to the Los Angeles special agent with the FBI, the crime wave actually started off in 2014, when Chile joined the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program. The 40-nation initiative grants those countries’ citizens virtually automatic 90-day visa waivers, permitting them, with just a passport, to jump on a plane to other ESTA destinations. (Chile is the sole Latin American country in the program.) Prior to COVID, more than 200,000 Chileans came to the U.S. each year. But within two years of Chile’s new ESTA status, “word of mouth,” the Los Angeles special agent with the FBI asserts, led more and more Chileans with larcenous plans to take quick vacations. The FBI agent says that “they see people come home having made thousands and even millions”—leading others to try their luck.
The total number of gang members is “hard to pinpoint,” notes the FBI agent. Despite the thousands of thefts he attributes to the crews—leading to global losses in the tens of millions—he finds the problem has gone largely unreported beyond local news outlets. The posses remain “under the radar,” he says, “because there’s no footprint. They get fictitious documents, IDs, residency cards, to claim they’re legally here.” When cops haul in the crooks, they frequently cannot find their names in any databases. “They accumulate no identifiable criminal record.” Bonilla finds that, generally, when a town starts seeing a wave of break-ins, “a small local police force, 30 to 40 cops in an affluent area, thinks it’s just local shitheads. But they’re not your typical burglars.”
Without prior convictions, each fresh arrest for a nonviolent offense often results in high bail, which the culprits or their comrades quickly pay— “so they have no reason to show up at court,” says the Los Angeles FBI agent—or a willing guilty plea and swift release after a fine or a short stint in jail. They soon head back home or out on the prowl again.
Scores of upscale communities in the U.S. have been raided. Andrew Hague, an assistant state attorney and former judge in Miami, set up that city’s anti-gang unit during the Miami Vice days of the Colombian narcotics cartels. He’s now part of a regional task force formed last spring to deal with the problem. He compares the crime rings to some of the drug organizations he battled in the ’80s. “That pales in comparison,” he says, though he notes that the current crews are far less violent. “They are all over the place. You knew the Colombian cartels were going through Miami, but I don’t remember a cartel that had operations going countrywide or worldwide. Everybody’s getting hit.” In January, The Washington Post reported on theft rings operating in the D.C. suburbs. According to the Post, local detectives suspect the perpetrators, after researching their quarry online, tend to home in on houses of well-to-do Asian and Middle Eastern residents due to the fact that, as the investigators put it, the “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.”
The thieves have been crisscrossing the globe. In March 2018, police in Halton, a well-to-do municipality west of Toronto, arrested 15 Chileans for 400-plus burglaries that raked in nearly $2 million (U.S.). The group accumulated so much booty that it stashed the excess in a commercial storage locker. Meanwhile, police in England announced they had nabbed nearly 80 Chileans after a prolonged investigation. According to a press report, a gang shuttled burglars in and out of London every two weeks to prey upon high-end neighborhoods. The thieves must have known when Premier League players living in Cheshire’s so-called footballers’ belt went out of town for away games. While the athletes were on the road, the crooks scored at their homes. According to press accounts, four Chileans tagged celebrity chef Marcus Wareing, who lost several prized watches and his wife’s Louboutins, among other costly items. The London Evening Standard reported that U.K. constables arrested some 300 Chileans over a three-year period, and police in Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Italy faced high numbers of such break-ins as well.
Bryan Herrera Maldonado was among the jet-set thieves. He and the others moved, struck, and moved on. But on that night in College Point, nobody had begun to put the pieces together to identify the peripatetic network that had allegedly dispatched Maldonado and hundreds of other “window crawlers,” as Bonilla dubs them, in the first place.
In late July 2019, a Florida couple in their 70s returned to their sleek contemporary Coconut Grove house after a week away. Gone were $14,000 in currency, $165,000 in precious gems, two bracelets valued at $38,000, a $15,000 Rolex, two Patek Philippe watches and others even more costly, sets of $10,000 earrings, plus handbags and more: a haul valued at $1.2 million in all. (The couple has requested anonymity for this article.) The wife felt terrorized by the experience. “We didn’t sleep in the bedroom there for a year,” she tells me.
Exterior surveillance video revealed that shortly before 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening, four people drove up in two cars. Three men, all dressed in the same sorts of clothes and hats, jumped a six-foot wall from the lot of a vacant house next door and broke open a rear window, carefully avoiding a sophisticated sound-sensing alarm system. Sixteen minutes later, they exited with two heavy safes and their backpacks bulging, disappearing into the night.
The husband says he contacted the police, who, he claims, offered little help. Over the next few weeks, the couple learned about two similar break-ins nearby. Set on locating the criminals, they decided to hire David Bolton, a well-known Miami private investigator. Bolton, who has helped solve several cases involving the Latin American underworld, tells me that he had first heard about the tourist-thief crime wave the year before. He reviewed the security footage: “The way they dressed, the way they moved, the materials they brought, the location, time of day, day of the week, the multiple vehicles, all added up to me as Chilean burglars.” He brought his findings to the cops. “I said, ‘These are not regular guys from the street. These are pros.’ The police thought they knew it all and didn’t want assistance from anybody.”
The couple offered a reward, and Bolton went to the media. “Small leads started trickling in,” he says, though he won’t tell me his sources. “Information footprints left behind led me to one individual, and the footprints expanded to multiple individuals in multiple locations.” But the ones he was after, he continues, “were all up in New York.” His sources pointed him to various suspects, including Maldonado. Bolton went to the FBI and New York City police with what he had learned, but both, he says, seemed disinterested. When he contacted Detective Bonilla, who was already pursuing his own leads on local break-ins, he got traction. “He ran with it.”
Over the next several months, Bonilla and another detective, who were by then working full-time on the Chilean cases in their county, continued tracking various crews. Among the locations in their crosshairs: Maldonado’s College Point house.
In photographs, Maldonado could pass as an American high schooler. He looks smooth-faced and lithe, with bright dark eyes, a winning smile, and stylishly short black hair. I spoke with detectives, reviewed public court documents, and contacted Maldonado’s lawyer. After a lengthy search, I found someone familiar with Maldonado’s life—all 26 years of it. This person insisted on not being identified. At times, Maldonado’s narrative, as recounted, sounds like that of someone as needy and lost as a young street thief from Oliver Twist. At other moments, it resembles that of a hardened tough from Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
When I talk with this anonymous source, the person says Maldonado seems almost surprised at the way his fortunes have unfolded. Maldonado’s “history is crazy,” my source tells me. I gather from my talks with the source that Maldonado grew up in Pudahuel, a dusty residential and industrial municipality in the western sprawl of metro Santiago, near the international airport and far removed from the wealthier central and eastern portions of the Chilean capital. According to the person with knowledge of his past, Maldonado lived with an older cousin who was like a big brother and best friend to him. That cousin introduced him to the tricks of the trade—at age 13. “One thing leads to another,” this person tells me.
Maldonado was sent to jail multiple times as a teen but, in each case, was only held overnight. That is, “until he had accumulated so many crimes that even he was surprised” when, at 16, he was incarcerated for the first time in a juvenile prison. “It only helped him,” the source says, “to meet more criminals.” When Maldonado got out, he left the country for the first time, going to Argentina to steal. While there he was detained by police.
I spoke online with the Chilean National Police’s Jorge Sánchez Sandoval, chief of the division responsible for reining in the Chilean tourist burglars. He is aware of Maldonado and describes him and his fellow tourist thieves as “specialized international criminals.” He tells me that money and status envy—capitalism’s high-octane fuel—drive mainly young poor people to try their luck “in Europe and the United States, [where people] are more trusting than they are here in Chile. They leave bags unattended. They take fewer precautions with their homes.” When some of the returnees “show off their money and luxury” once back home, he notes, “this motivates their neighbors, who see the new cars and jewelry.” He says others start to see a “criminal adventure” in going overseas.
“It’s a lifestyle,” agrees Bonilla, but he warns that something far more organized has been at work. In Maldonado’s case, once he returned from Argentina to his home in Chile, it was not long before he was arrested again—this time for a carjacking, according to my source. He didn’t get off lightly, doing five years’ time. Sometime during that period, he learned that a serious score could be made overseas. Released at age 22, the Maldonado contact tells me, he went to Argentina, where he stole enough money to travel to Europe.
He flew to Spain, where he joined an 11-member, mainly Chilean crew. According to media reports, they plagued the Madrid region for three months until they were busted after reportedly robbing more than 40 houses. (Maldonado, as mentioned above, refused to comment for this story, including offers to respond to these and other allegations.) He spent another year behind bars before being deported back to Chile, only to resurface in Argentina. He secured a false passport there, the source contends, and stole enough to hop a flight to Miami. Once in the States, Maldonado linked up with other Chileans already there. He “know[s] the Chilean people in the USA,” my contact says. And they know him.
The source notes that while in Miami, Maldonado met a young Chilean woman through people he knew who worked at Miami’s Booby Trap on the River, a strip club catering to a mainly Latin and rap crowd, where bottles of Champagne start at $1,000 and table rentals go for $2,400. Along with the naked women grinding onstage, pro ballers, rappers, and celebrity DJs light up the crowd. But the popular nightspot has also had its rough edge. In a notorious April 2021 incident, NBA player Sterling Brown, now with the Dallas Mavericks, required hospitalization for what press reports described as serious facial lacerations after being struck by a bottle in a parking lot fight.
That pumped-up-glam life must have appealed to Maldonado. In photos, he smiles sweetly while his girlfriend puckers alongside him. Both are decked out in black Philipp Plein jogging pants and T-shirts with Plein’s signature rhinestone-embossed skull and crossbones motifs, a favorite among clubbers and would-be players able to afford his pricey street fashions. In another photo, Maldonado rocks a matching Chicago Bulls uniform shirt and hat, aviator wire rims, and heavy rings and chains. Posing in front of a late-model Audi, Maldonado is the spitting image of Ali G, the Sacha Baron Cohen character.
In 2019, according to police and private detectives, Maldonado moved to New York. Once there, a source with inside knowledge tells me, Maldonado picked up numerous sets of false IDs. The couple set up house in College Point, and, according to Bonilla, Maldonado started in with his crew, sweeping out valuables night after night in the estate towns ringing the city.
In describing the tourist thieves’ lifestyle, police authorities and the person with knowledge of Maldonado’s world say that most come for a short time. “They steal [up to] $40,000 and go back” to Chile quickly, says the anonymous contact. But Maldonado went a different route. The source says Maldonado liked “the good life,” the money, and the people he got to know in the U.S. Maldonado stayed longer. That proved to be his downfall.
Given the similarities in the thieves’ methods and their whack-a-mole routes from state to state and country to country, many police officials assert that Maldonado and the others are part of a sophisticated criminal network. “There is somebody they answer to,” Bonilla insists. “Who’s paying [for] the plane ride and hotel to start off? They travel everywhere. Montana! How the fuck do they know that affluent people live there? There is rank and structure. It’s like the mafia.”
Miami gangbuster Hague shares this view and intimates that evidence he has seen “suggests coordination, that somebody in each major city is giving [thieves] assignments.” Another person with insight into the inner workings of the operations says that few sources talk about the underworld’s tactics because they fear retribution: “The syndicate is very powerful and has the means of hurting you. If you talk, there are repercussions.”
While authorities hold differing views about who, if anyone, funds and organizes the crews, nearly all agree that there is a system to send money to Chile. Bonilla alleges that the Chilean thieves in the U.S. fence goods through “Colombians in Los Angeles and New York.” The knowledgeable source, meanwhile, explains that money gets wired home immediately via Western Union and other transfer services. As for valuables like traceable watches, exceptional precious stones, and fashion items that are not easily offloaded, the person explains that “friends and family without criminal records travel here and return with them to Chile.”
Bonilla has been tracing the Chilean gangs for most of the past two years. But he had no idea how extensive the operations were when he zeroed in on Maldonado and his comrades on that frigid evening in January 2020. After that night, he says, “my investigation led me to something we never thought of. It kept on going, opening up from there.”
When the police rushed in to nab Maldonado on his Queens doorstep, he turned. Seeing the cops, he shoved one of his alleged accomplices back down the stairs, tangling up the other accomplice and the approaching officers. He raced into the house while the police tackled one crew member who briefly resisted. They also arrested Maldonado’s girlfriend there. (She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor conspiracy charge in Nassau County court and was released. According to the source close to Maldonado, the couple has since split up.) Inside the house, police discovered a setup for pulling apart mounds of jewelry—as well as a quarter million dollars in valuables. “That was just the stuff they couldn’t get rid of,” Bonilla says.
Maldonado sprinted out the back door. The cops had blocked the street but failed to cover the rear of the house. “I had put a lot of time into this,” Bonilla tells me. “And he literally slipped out of my hands.” Maldonado vanished into the wintery night.
While the police combed the neighborhood, Maldonado raced across to an adjacent park and waded out into the icy East River. “It was freezing cold that day,” recalls Bonilla. “I thought, If he goes in the water, he dies.” But the source close to Maldonado tells me that he managed to survive in the water and along the shoreline for a time, shivering and exhausted. Not long after, he was on a flight to L.A.
There, he got in touch with the older cousin who originally introduced him to stealing for a living. According to Bonilla and private detective Bolton, Maldonado and his cousin reconstituted a crew in California and, for the next nine months, went searching for America, “pillaging the whole way,” says Bonilla. Cell phone GPS tracking led Bonilla to believe that Maldonado, his cousin, and others in the crew toured up the West Coast as far as Washington, scooted over into Montana, and then went down through Colorado and across the Midwest, removing valuables from some of the nation’s finer houses in their path. (Again, Maldonado would not comment for this story.)
At some point, Bonilla says, Maldonado’s cousin split off, returning to Santiago. But once back home, he made the mistake of flashing his wealth. Within a few weeks, he was murdered in a robbery, according to Bonilla. Maldonado came back to the New York area. My source with knowledge of his movements says that his friends and girlfriend were there.
“In my heart,” recalls Bonilla, “I knew Maldonado was not leaving the country.” He kept on him for 10 months. Bonilla eventually tracked him to a Jersey City motel, where, on Friday, November 13, 2020, the detective tightened the noose.
Bonilla entered the motel and saw Maldonado stepping off an elevator. “That’s him!” he shouted. Maldonado bolted, but “the place was surrounded,” Bonilla says. Was it ever. He had conscripted “a whole task force of U.S. marshals,” which in his estimation included “about 40 agents.” After police arrested Maldonado, Bonilla says, a search of his room turned up “nothing crazy, maybe a hundred thousand dollars of jewelry,” plus a large number of cell phones and stacks of fraudulent documents.
Pleading guilty to the same Saddle River second-story job that led to the January 2020 bust of his accomplices, Maldonado spent 71 days in a Bergen County jail on burglary charges before being extradited to Connecticut, where he pleaded guilty to burglary in October 2021. That brought him an additional 18-month sentence, including time served while awaiting trial. Bonilla tells me that Nassau County will soon extradite Maldonado to try him there; federal officials also appear likely to press more serious charges.
But even with Bryan Herrera Maldonado behind bars, Bonilla has not let up on unraveling the bigger puzzle. “Mr. Maldonado,” the detective says, “he’s a little piece” of it. But, he adds, investigating him “opened a door.” That door, he says—along with evidence gleaned from other leads and arrests—“led me to the Colombians—with an s.” He claims “the Colombians have an organizing role in bringing people in and guiding them to where they should go—and in fencing the goods. An astounding amount of cash is running through their hands.” The detective now believes that the home break-ins are just one branch of their criminal enterprise. “These individuals have tentacles that reach beyond what we had imagined, beyond house burglaries.” He won’t offer specifics but contends that they operate a “coast-to-coast” criminal syndicate. “The organizers, the higher-ups, are a small, tight-knit group—a handful of them. The window crawlers [like Maldonado], those are hundreds. Hundreds.”
Bonilla is now working with federal authorities and the Chilean police. “It’s a network we’re trying to dismantle,” he says. After nearly four years on the case—and two years since Maldonado first slipped through his fingers—Jesus Bonilla warns, “I’m a heat-seeking missile.” Stay tuned, he tells me. “Arrests are coming.”