The Gang That Loves Glitter: A Shadowy Group of Jewelry Thieves Turns to Deadly Violence

Newsweek, September 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Gang That Loves Glitter: A Shadowy Group of Jewelry Thieves Turns to Deadly Violence


The first time they robbed Joe Tenhagen, a Miami gem dealer, the bad guys used the oldest trick in the book--they slit one of the tires on his car, causing a slow leak. When Tenhagen, driving home, pulled over to change the flat, the thieves sneaked up, smashed a window and got away with $30,000 worth of precious stones and equipment. "I was a wild man," Tenhagen says. "They had outsmarted a street-smart guy." The cops asked Tenhagen if he wanted to offer a reward. "Reward?" he said. "I'll kill the bastards."

He meant it. Six weeks later the gang came to his house to rob him again and Tenhagen, yelling in fury, pulled out a .45 and chased them to their getaway car. Tenhagen, who said he saw one of the perps aim a revolver at him, fired 10 shots and fatally wounded one of the thieves. The other two men, both illegal aliens from Colombia, were caught and went to jail. They will be deported when they get out, probably sometime in 2002 or 2003.

Like hundreds of other gem and jewelry dealers across the country, Joe Tenhagen was stalked, set up and robbed by a criminal mob that preys on the American jewelry industry. To police and jewelers alike, the mob has been known for at least 10 years as "the Colombians," although it actually includes men and women from at least five Latin American nations, many of whom enter the United States with forged documents. According to the FBI and many local police officials, the gang consists of as many as 2,000 thieves organized in teams of 10 to 20 individuals. These teams are commanded by bosses known as "dons" and underbosses known as "hombres," and they are usually based in cities like Miami, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But the Colombians move all around the country to target gem and jewelry salesmen where they are most vulnerable--on the road.

According to cops and industry sources, the thieves use sophisticated surveillance techniques and a repertoire of diversionary tactics like the flat-tire trick. They also use guns, and some say they are becoming more violent. So far this year, according to the Jewelers' Security Alliance, a New York-based trade group, the Colombians have pulled off 133 jewelry robberies worth $33 million, including a $4 million heist in Long Beach, Calif. "Dollarwise, this is the worst year on record," says the alliance's John Kennedy. "And we've never seen this level of violence before."

Essentially, the gang has zeroed in on a longstanding security lapse within the jewelry industry--the tradition of sending out salesmen to show real jewelry, instead of photographs or fakes, to retailers. That means the contents of a single salesman's case can be worth $1 million--easy pickings, considering the fact that until recently, few firms provided their reps with escorts. …

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