How India can prepare itself for the onset of burglars from foreign lands who arrive just to loot
Judge Jonathan Davis of the Kingston crown court of the United Kingdom pointed to an emerging new challenge to police officials across the world while handing down a conviction to a gang of burglars from Chile.
These burglars had broken into celebrity chef Marcus Wareing’s house in London. With an order of imprisonment for three years and four months for all the four offenders, he indicated to the world that - “No one here or abroad should be under an illusion that somehow the UK is a soft touch” and this is symptomatic of the line of thought ‘tourism burglary’ can evoke in nationalists.
The incident reported in the UK is not an isolated incident. Similar incidents are happening the world over, particularly in affluent countries. Apart from the USA and UK, ‘tourism burglaries’ have been reported from Canada, Australia and Spain.
In the USA, the FBI has coined an acronym - SATGs (South American Theft Groups) to generalise the countries of origin of tourism burglars. The majority of offenders of this genre have come from Chile so far. Now ‘tourism burglary’ is accepted nomenclature in all countries to refer to this phenomenon.
In the near future, can we expect more such crimes in fast developing economies like India? Maybe!
With increasing prosperity of nations and increased mobility of people across borders, these kinds of crimes may be incidental to and a natural byproduct of tourism. The question of why this trend has emerged and where it is emerging from is the subject of a wider discussion. This analysis though will be restricted to the policing aspects of this emerging trend.
Do people travel to commit crime? Yes, it is a reality.
There are known international drug lords and terrorist groups who exploit weak political and administrative institutions and porous borders, but this phenomenon of international criminal gangs organising, planning and operating on a foreign soil on a tourist visa is an emerging form of crime now.
To understand this phenomenon better, the following questions are relevant.
• Is it really going to pose a challenge to police forces across the world?
• Are we also going to face similar problems in India?
• What precautions would be required to identify and differentiate intrusion of such elements from genuine tourists?
• What measures will be required at immigration to stop entry and exit of criminals like burglars?
As tourism and related service industries are emerging as a major employment provider in developing countries like India it is just a matter of time that India also becomes a target of international criminal gangs.
Global tourism has galloped from 809 million arrivals in the year 2005 to 1401 million in the year 2018 which indicates the potential of tourism industry. World tourism export earnings have reached USD 5 billion a day on average according to the 2019 UNWTO report.
These burglars masquerade as tourists, enter the target country with a list of places to visit, stay in hotels or airbnb in locations suitable to hide their identity and intentions.
Entry into the target country is through tourist visa but once entered they do not waste time in sight seeing but utilise it in scanning posh locations.
As the immigrant population has gone up in those countries, merging with local population and operating incognito is easier.
As far as possible they break into the houses in the absence of inmates. However if the inmates are present they are usually attired as construction workers or semi-skilled labour. They avoid violent confrontations because in the event of them getting caught, the punishment will be lesser if it is a non-violent encounter.
If it is SATGs for the western world, there are similar problems in other countries, including India.
Offenders from states like Jharkhand and West Bengal eye high value targets, like jewellery and mobile phone showrooms. They commit burglary using sophisticated methods like gas cutters to break into the physical barriers.
Similarly, offenders from northern Bihar and UP target high end watch shops and jewellery stores in other states. The investigators can at most arrest offenders but recovery of stolen property is extremely difficult as the ‘maal’ (goods) is immediately moved across the border to Bangladesh or Nepal respectively.
Actual doers of crime would receive only a small portion of the booty whereas the operators take the lion’s share. These offenders do not come through regular channels as tourists as they are illegal operators across the borders.
One of the rationales behind Brexit is to stop free influx of people from Eastern European countries into the UK, and specific measures like restrictions on visa to visitors from countries whose citizens are often caught for crimes.
Countries are greylisted or blacklisted to monitor the visa applicants closely but the offshoot of this measure is refusal of visa to several genuine travellers. An alternative approach could be to monitor the movement of foreign nationals after they land in vulnerable cities. But in cosmopolitan cities like London it becomes very difficult.
Technology based solutions may come in handy as CCTV network linked to AI-based facial recognition software can pick up suspects roaming around posh residential localities by comparing the facial data of tourists with the facial data feed received from vulnerable areas. Tracking the sequence of events of the burglary itself could be done but this big data comes with huge cost implications.
This is the only agency which is concerned with the fight against crime with a framework of prevent, suppress and punish, but it is concerned with only drug, corruption and human trafficking.
It is time to have an international framework for cooperation encompassing enforcement, mutual legal assistance, extradition, technical areas, sharing information and crime forecasting. Maybe a separate UN convention to create institutions for cooperation in the above areas is an option.
Sharing databases on criminal gangs following this modus operandi, successful prosecution, conviction and deportation are fundamental in combating such crimes. Formal and informal cooperation among enforcement agencies of different countries is a useful way to catch them before they commit crimes.
For example in a robbery spree in Australia, according to New South Wales Police Superintendent Daniel Doherty, a tourism burglars group robbed about 80 homes and shoplifted from several high-end clothing stores.
A tip from Canada allowed Australian police to find and stop the group. Sharing of information through informal channels is the fastest way to control these criminals. This is an unexplored area of cooperation in a highly formalised international atmosphere.
In India perhaps, a new vertical in the police force to deal with international criminals committing conventional crimes may help, though it is debatable whether this institution should be at the state level or as a central unit. Another option is to strengthen the existing wing of the CBI dealing with extradition, considering the fact that policing is a state subject.
(The author is a senior IPS officer in Tamil Nadu.)