Violent Jewelry Thieves Prowl South Florida

They give new meaning to the term blood diamond.

Right now the only law enforcement initiative against jewel theft in Florida is the SATG Task Force. Formed in 2003, the task force consists of Coral Gables Police, the FBI, Miami-Dade Police, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Miami Police Department once worked with the force; manpower shortages have forced others to drop out.

The Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale is as familiar to Siegi Lindsay as her own back yard. She owns a tiny boutique, Acacia, and she and a next-door shop owner spend muggy afternoons chatting outside as customers trickle in. Around 5:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in March, Albert Nissim, a traveling jewel salesman from New York, parked his rental car about 50 feet from Lindsay. Suddenly she saw two men running through the parking lot. According to police records and Lindsay — the primary witness — the men were wearing dark hooded sweatshirts and white bandannas over their faces.

"Oh my God, there's gonna be a robbery," Lindsay told her friend. "Get in your store and call 911."

Kyle T. Webster

They bolted inside their shops. Lindsay picked up a cordless phone, dialed 911, and headed back outside.

Inside the car, Nissim detached the GPS unit from his windshield and placed it in the side pocket of his door. That's when the driver and passenger windows shattered. So stunned was Nissim that he stared at his hands, unable to comprehend why they were covered in glass.

A man on the driver's side reached in and gripped Nissim's vest, which contained diamonds — a testament to the experience of the assailants and the amount of intelligence they'd gathered. "Give us your diamonds, motherfucker," one of the thieves demanded.

He ripped the vest off Nissim while the man on the passenger side opened the door, reached over, grabbed the keys from the ignition, and popped the trunk. Inside was a blue backpack containing some $500,000 in diamonds, not an atypical amount to carry.

A white van came barreling the wrong way down a one-way lane in the parking lot, and the driver, a man Lindsay says wore a white T-shirt and no mask, yelled out the window. The thieves dove into the van and tore through the lot and out an exit onto Ninth Street. They came up behind a slow-moving car and slung around it, almost colliding with a vehicle in the oncoming lane. Then they were gone.

Seconds later, Fort Lauderdale Police arrived. The robbers have yet to be found, but department spokeswoman Det. Kathy Collins says the case is by no means cold.

Probably within hours, Nissim's diamonds had been shipped to Bogotá or delivered to a local fence.

Very little is known about the gang members. They hail mostly from Colombia, but also Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, and Mexico. They are almost always in this country illegally.

Gang members who've been arrested over the years paint a blurry picture of their backgrounds, but some are known to be ex-Colombian army or paramilitary. With the emergence of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Colombian government issued a decree in 1965 allowing civilians to form militias to protect their communities and land from the guerrillas. This also opened the door for the landed wealthy to form their own paramilitary groups to protect their assets — namely emerald mines, marijuana, cocaine, and livestock. When the government realized it had made a mistake, it repealed the law in 1989. But five years later, a similar law allowed civilians to form neighborhood watch groups to resist guerrilla activities. Popular support for the FARC guerrillas has never been high (the freeing of a group of FARC hostages this past July by a Colombian military squad proved to be vastly popular in that country), and since 2002, violence there has been on the decline. Nonetheless, a large contingent of disenfranchised paramilitary members — some 32,000, according to the CIA — has been demobilized. Many suspect that these unemployed hired guns, who often have ties to narcotraffickers, are creating an abundant supply of prospective jewel thieves. They aren't crossing the border through Mexico or smuggling themselves into the United States; they're hopping a plane with an authentic-looking passport and landing in airports across the nation for the sole purpose of joining a jewelry gang, according to agent Noel Gil of the Miami FBI office.

The thieves have told Gil that they get up and go to work every day as though it were a 9-to-5 job. They might identify a mark and choose three or four guys from within their network for the job. Because each person receives an equal share, there is very little infighting. Their roles are often interchangeable: On one hit, you might be the leader, with the big-picture view of the robbery. On the next, the driver, and after that, a gunman.

Making charges stick against the South American thieves can be difficult. In late March, two New York jewelers — Ribi Jusupov, CEO of Rayalty Jewelry, and David Takhalov — were traveling around South Florida. They stopped at jewelry stores in Aventura and Boca Raton, showing and selling their line while staying at a hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. On their way back to the hotel to return the jewels to the safe, Takhalov exited the turnpike. Their rental car needed gas, so he pulled into a Shell station on Red Road in Miramar to fill up.

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