Blood Diamonds

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

Law enforcement's track record of arrests against jewel gangs reflects this problem. Of the 1,291 jewelry-related crimes nationwide in 2007 reported by Jewelers' Security Alliance, only one-third of them resulted in arrests. Unsolved cases proliferate each year. As long as salesmen brashly trundle diamonds across South Florida in quantities sufficient to finance a Richard Branson-worthy yacht, thieves will engage in a criminal enterprise whose profits rival almost any kind of theft or narcotrafficking operation.

Former Miami-Dade Police Det. Jeff Frau worked pickpocket and distraction thefts at Miami International Airport for some 20 years. Each day he'd comb the terminals for crooks. Legend has it that some had been educated at the School of Seven Bells — a training camp said to exist somewhere in the misty reaches of the Andes Mountains near Bogotá. The academy supposedly creates a class of thieves with preternatural finesse. The final exam — according to lore — is to remove valuables from seven pockets on a mannequin booby-trapped with seven bells. A slight tinkle of a bell and, like Fagin's student pickpockets in Oliver Twist, the student flunks.

Illustrations by Kyle T. Webster

Surveilling the busy airport corridors, Frau saw every kind of jewel-theft technique. Back in the Eighties, the game called for patience and distraction. He would watch beautiful, provocatively dressed Latinas engage traveling businessmen in conversation, holding their attention until a cohort could slip away with their briefcases or satchels. Another trick involved bumping into them, smearing ketchup or mustard on their suits, and making off with their valuables as soon as they set them down to clean up.

Frau's airport beat became ground zero for the South American theft gangs. By 2000, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in precious gems were being funneled through MIA. Wholesale salesmen made their deals at the Seybold Building and the Metromall in the Miami Jewelry District — one of the most important jewelry supply hubs in the world, where jewelers from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia come to purchase unset diamonds and jewels.

Gangs would follow the salesmen, often for days, learning their schedules. They'd call in a crew to seize the jewels when the opportunity was ripe. A crew usually travels in two cars in case one is stopped by law enforcement, Taylor says. As cell phones became common, the thieves integrated them into a communication network of hand signals and two-way radios.

"You bust one [crew], set the cell phones out on the car, and they'll all start ringing," Taylor says. "They're calling, saying, 'Where you at?' And there'll be 10 numbers on that cell phone."

Taylor worked the pawnshops for stolen goods when he was a reserve detective for Miami Beach Police. In 2001, he came across some jewelry sold to a shop by a Colombian man and woman. When he noticed some of the gems still had tags attached, red flags went up. Taylor investigated, discovering the jewelry had been stolen and the Colombians were members of a South American gang. That was Taylor's introduction to the South American thieves, and it taught him a valuable lesson: Information is everything.

So last year, Taylor and Frau launched SATGIN, an information service they finance out of their own pockets and offer free of charge to law enforcement agencies. From a third-floor office that overlooks Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Frau and Taylor pore over news accounts and police reports of robberies, identifying hits that could be attributed to South American gangs, often unbeknown to the agency handling them. Nabbing jewel thieves doesn't necessarily mean they have to be caught in the act. Patrol officers have stumbled on gang members during stops for loitering or drug possession. If a cop is diligent, he might send the fingerprints to Quantico. But by the time he hears back that the suspect is a member of a South American gang, the crook has long since bailed out of jail. The trick is catching them for jewelry-related crimes before they post bond and disappear.

Gang members typically carry forged documents and might have multiple identities, Taylor says. To foil fingerprint identification, thieves apply liquid bandage to their fingertips or burn off their prints with acid. They often scrunch up their faces during mug shots or alter their hairstyles and facial hair between arrests. Some are known to use Botox injections and plastic surgery to conceal their identities, much like recently apprehended Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, leader of the Colombian Norte del Valle cocaine cartel.

This is why effective detective work requires creative thinking. "If we can't charge this guy with armed robbery of a jeweler, we get him on immigration charges and deport him," Frau says. "If he comes back in, we have a re-entry-after-deport, and that's a federal charge. We don't have the interagency communication, which makes it bad for us and good for them."

Stolen jewelry doesn't spur the kind of cooperation and information-sharing that narcotics enforcement does. SATGIN's goal is to create a network by which cops across the nation can share information and photos and set up databases that feature every jeweler's laser-inscribed ID tag or logo. Taylor plans to develop facial recognition software to identify thieves, as well as e-mail and text message alerts warning cops of hits in the area.

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