Colombian crooks' hunting ground

Crooks all the way from Colombia in South America are making their presence felt in Singapore.

They pack light and spend about $3,000 each to travel over multiple time zones to get here.

Some arrive solo, others with companions. Once here, they hook up with a fixer who arranges their accommodation, and perhaps even gets them a partner in crime.

Then they get to work, targeting private houses, watching neighbourhoods, before breaking into homes to steal cash and jewellery. Four Colombians were charged in court this month alone.

Last Tuesday, Foranda Arias Fredy, 43, was jailed a total of 91/2 years after pleading guilty to breaking into 16 homes on two trips here. His haul: $650,000 in cash and valuables.

Three others, Never Daniel Catano Ramirez, 28; Juan Pablo Lombana Gomez, 26; and Cristian Albeiro Becerra Valencia, 26, face fresh charges for allegedly breaking into a two-storey terraced house in Yunnan Crescent, which doubles as an office, and stealing about $360,000 in cash and jewellery worth around $2,000.

At least 13 Colombians have been charged with or jailed for housebreaking or theft-related offences since the start of last year.

Colombian thieves were first in the news some time in 2000, when at least 15 were arrested for housebreaking and theft offences in the span of a few months.

Some were so successful on their trips here that they spread the word in their hometowns that Singapore was a thieves' paradise.

Lawyers familiar with these cases told The Sunday Times that Singapore is seen as a ripe target because it is affluent.

The Colombians who have been convicted were jailed for between six months and 91/2 years.

Court documents from last week's case offer a peek into the world of these Colombian prowlers.

Fredy first arrived in July last year and left. He then came again last October and stayed for a month, during which he went on a housebreaking spree.

The court heard that he was given the name and number of someone in Singapore known only as "Julio", who helped him find a place to stay and even hooked him up with another Colombian to be his accomplice.

"Julio" sent them to Orchard Towers, where they met two other Colombians who were planning a heist. So the four decided to steal together.

Previous reports say these criminals do their homework and pick the areas to strike. They start by walking around private estates in areas like Bukit Timah, Simei and Bishan, their eyes trained on empty, unsecured houses.

Their Caucasian looks help them pass off as expatriate residents and they blend in by wearing T-shirts and bermudas.

The Colombians are believed to work within a larger network of criminals, receiving money for their stay here, and putting up at apartments and holiday chalets.

They are known to cross over to neighbouring countries before returning using different passports.

Lawyer N. Srinivasan told The Sunday Times that the men come here because word has gone out that homes here are not as secure as in Colombia: "They are more open. They have glass windows which may not always be locked, and not too many gates or grilles, and not all have dogs either."

Security camera footage taken from the Yunnan Crescent house in Jurong West that was broken into showed it took just seconds for three suspects to break in, using what appeared to be a screwdriver.

They prised open a full-length glass window and took just 20 minutes to emerge with the loot.

Mr Alvin Yeo, who is MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, which covers Yunnan Crescent, said last week that such incidents in the estate were rare because Jurong is not known to be a wealthy area with many houses.

There were 100 cases of housebreaking and theft at landed properties last year, compared to 66 in 2011.

Other than Colombians, other Central and South Americans have also been nabbed recently.

Last November, a Guatemalan man was arrested for at least three suspected housebreaking cases in private housing estates, while two Chileans were jailed in April last year for theft.

Singapore is also not the only target in the region.

A gang of five Colombians was busted last November after breaking into more than 10 homes in Shah Alam, Selangor, in what was a two-week theft spree in Malaysia.

Mr Srinivasan said it is likely Singapore has not seen the last of the Colombian crooks.

He said: "I believe the trend will become more prevalent. We attract criminals. It is one of the unnecessary trappings of being developed."