Blood Diamonds

Violent South American thieves are stealing millions in precious gems ... and getting away with it

"It's picking up," Frau says.

The Rozio robbery, after all, took place in broad daylight. And this wasn't Miami. It was Boca — retirement communities, the well-to-do elderly, synagogues, pricey stores.

Second Amendment bloggers consider Rozio a hero for using his German Luger to take on the thieves. But local and federal law enforcement agencies, along with a couple of ex-cops — Frau and Taylor — know the South American crooks won't be intimidated by Rozio's response or that of the police.

In October, Miami Beach will host a jewel thief's wet dream — $3 billion in goods all in one place. Buyers and sellers will gather at the Jewelers International Showcase, the largest independent trade show in the Americas. Taylor predicts jewelry gangs will descend on Miami Beach in the weeks before the show like hungry locusts to a mature crop.

For years, South Florida has been one of the worst areas in the nation for jewelry theft, says John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance. Now SATGIN wants to join law enforcement agencies in taking on gangs of illegal Colombian immigrants terrorizing jewelers across the United States with near-impunity. Arrests are rare. Tracing the identities of the thieves has led investigators down many dead-end roads. Taylor hopes SATGIN will play a role by giving law enforcement the means, the network, and the information to combat a criminal phenomenon that has metamorphosed from jewel pickpockets to complex thievery involving weeks of surveillance and blitzkrieg-like assaults.

"What we see is that you have younger, crazier gang members," Kennedy says. "Before, you might have had people willing to engage in trickery or deception. They might pat you on the back, and when you turn around, someone else grabs your bag. Now, we frequently see immediate violence — smashing the windows, smashing the person."

To the uninitiated, selling precious gems might sound like a swanky line of work. It does involve buzzing around South Florida and other exotic places, handling and appraising elegant jewels for high-end merchants. But veteran salesmen say it's a harried enterprise, fraught with financial and bodily risk. To hang onto your life and livelihood, you have to be as wary as a narcotrafficker. Otherwise you're an easy and lucrative target.

Traveling jewel salesmen carry anywhere from a few thousand dollars in gold chains or watches to one or two million in diamonds. Some work directly for jewelers, selling their lines to boutiques. Others, like Rozio, are independent middlemen toting multiple lines from jewelry makers to shops across the nation. Rozio's car was his office; South Florida jewelry stores were his workplace. He cleared about $3,000 a month, far less than many of the Cadillac-driving itinerant jewelers he'd pass on the road.

It's all about who you work for or sell to and what you're packing, Kennedy says. Traveling salesmen, however, are dwindling because the risk of robbery is driving out the veterans and deterring young people from getting in. The average age of a jewel salesman, Kennedy says, is around 50. "The rewards, as I'm told by many salespeople, are not as strong as they were 20 years ago."

Owing to high gas prices, salespeople making calls in person has become less cost-effective. Overnight shipping is catching on as a distribution tool. And relatively secure invitation-only trade shows such as the one coming to Miami Beach in October are becoming more popular as a way to reach large numbers of buyers while lessening exposure to the organized thieves haunting their steps.

The South American robbers aren't organized like the Mafia-style gangs of old, according to law enforcement experts. There is no don, no pyramid structure. Each man gets an equal cut — after the stones are sent overseas to Bogotá or recut by a local fence to erase the identities of gems, each with its own characteristics that are as telling as a fingerprint. The gang structure resembles that of the clans of Eastern European Gypsies, linked by marriage or blood or, for other reasons, based on the mutual trust of core members of the cell. Members form interchangeable parts of a stealing machine. They have matriculated easily into local Hispanic communities.

Some experts complain the government can wage overseas wars on Colombian drug cartels and an entrenched insurgency in Iraq but can't stem the surge of South American theft groups on our own soil. It's true that law enforcement's efforts to handcuff these gangs have been largely thwarted. One problem is that the thieves roam far and wide from their hubs in New York or Miami or Los Angeles. Another is that smaller police departments such as Boca Raton don't have the time, resources, or connections with other agencies to take on the rings.

"Everybody is overworked and understaffed," says one law enforcement source. "Let's say a jeweler gets hit in Hialeah and the case gets assigned to a robbery detective. And he's got to work all the other cases he has. So the Hialeah detective is working his robbery. The Miami detective is working his robbery. And the Miami Beach detective is working his robbery. What Miami has could solve the Hialeah case. It might be the very same group hitting all three and no one is working together."

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