Crime & the Law

Operation Phoenix closed after final member of the Asian Gold Gang is jailed

Claudia Santos jailed for four and a half years. Image: Met Police

Claudia Santos jailed for four and a half years. Image: Met Police

The last phase of ‘Operation Phoenix’- has just concluded with sentencing of a pivotal member of a Latin American organised crime group.

40 year old Claudia Santos from West Norwood has been jailed for four and a half years at Lewes Crown Court for conspiracy to commit burglary.

The mother of two, had previously pleaded guilty at the same court, having had a key role in identifying Asian properties to burgle throughout the UK.

Santos had operated within a group that used a systematic and targeted approach to burgling houses.

She helped pinpoint Asian addresses to steal jewellery that had been passed down through the generations, and had identified as many as 800 potential victims.

Operation Phoenix

Operation Phoenix was a multi-agency intelligence gathering operation involving the Met and several other police forces and agencies.

The Latin American organised crime group was operating internationally committing hundreds of Asian gold burglaries, high value jewellery snatches of up to £300,000 and bank withdrawal distractions.

Many of the offenders falsely claimed to be Mexican and Guatemalan and were entering the UK using fraudulently obtained passports, mainly from Mexico.

The suspects then flew to Europe and entered the UK via the Eurostar into London.

They based themselves within Hispanic communities in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth and initially their offending was in the capital.

They were extremely organised with all offences premeditated, researched and highly sophisticated.

On arrival in the UK the suspects were often taken to safe addresses and then introduced into criminality.

Organisers within the group arranged for them to have access to second-hand vehicles, registered to false names with insurance fraudulently obtained.

This allowed the offenders to travel around the UK and commit crime without fear of being stopped by police.

Other key members of the group, including Santos, would research websites to identify Asian-owned properties that were then targeted for future gold burglaries.

Offenders were often in possession of handwritten lists of names and addresses that had been entered into their vehicles’ sat navs.

Time line of the case

October 2012

The group that had initially been operating in London began to have an impact on other police forces, mainly in the Home Counties but also as far afield as Gloucestershire and Manchester.

There had been a dramatic increase in Asian gold burglaries that could be linked to this group with Asian communities such as Crawley, Slough and Northampton being specifically targeted.

November 2012

The London Regional Intelligence Unit (LRIU) and South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU) were tasked under Operation Phoenix to collate all intelligence on this group with a view to disrupting their criminal activities.

The operation identified more than 260 suspects, most of whom had entered the UK illegally under false details. Teams were also traveling worldwide with like offenses reported in Japan, Canada, New Zealand and throughout Europe.

It was quickly realised that to have any long-term impact on this group, the operation would need to involve close collaboration and intelligence-sharing between other law enforcement agencies including Home Office Immigration Enforcement, UK Border Force, the National Crime Agency (NCA) and ACPO Criminal Records Office (ACRO).

It also became necessary to work closely with the Mexican and Colombian Embassies as the majority of the offenders were believed to be of Colombian origin and staff fully co-operated to provide crucial information.

Working with the UK’s immigration enforcement representative in Bogota, the operation was able to share information with the Colombian National Registry Office and forge contacts with the Colombian National Crime Bureau.

With the help of the NCA and ACRO, a procedure was agreed for the fingerprints of suspects in custody in the UK to be sent to be checked against their national register. This confirmed the offenders’ true Colombian identities and any previous convictions.

This process identified around 150 Colombian suspects who had entered the UK using false names, many with serious previous convictions back home for aggravated theft, drugs and violence.

It was also revealed that following their arrest, suspects would then adopt different bogus identities to carry out further offences and attempt to evade justice.

Operation Phoenix set up an improved briefing and circulation system across UK police forces to help join up potential offences and offenders.

The operation also worked closely with the Insurance Fraud Investigation Group (IFIG) to identify and circulate potential vehicles in possession of this group. It resulted in offenders and their vehicles being identified and detained far more quickly.

Colombia, Latin America. 150 Colombian suspects entered the UK using false identification. Image: Google Maps

Colombia, Latin America. 150 Colombian suspects entered the UK using false identification. Image: Google Maps

A number of proactive operations took place including:

December 2012

A Met London Crime Squad operation led to three Latin American men being arrested in Gloucester having just committed a burglary at an Asian home.

All claimed to be Mexican and used alias names but were identified as Colombian by fingerprints checked and shared by the Colombian National Crime Bureau. All three were charged, convicted and imprisoned:

John Eber Mendoza-Avevalo,  a Colombian national – jailed for 16 months

Luis Garardo Amaya-Suarez,  a Colombian national – jailed for two years

Nelson Andres Malo-Rojas,  a Colombian national – jailed for two years.

January 2013

As a result of a stop on a suspicious vehicle in Surrey, two men were arrested. They claimed to be Mexican nationals.

Support from other forces meant the men were convicted of conspiracy to commit burglary and jailed. Offences had been committed in Surrey, Thames Valley and Northamptonshire between October 2012 and 31 January 2013.

May 2013

At Guildford Crown Court:

Wilson Javier Martinez Andrade, a Colombian national, was jailed for two years and two months
Marco Aurelio Reina Romero, a Colombian national was jailed for two and a half years.

June 2013

A team of three distraction thieves were arrested and charged with various counts of theft.

The offenders followed a jeweller at Euston railway station and snatched a bag containing jewellery worth £250,000.

They also followed members of public who had made large withdrawals from banks, distracted them and then stole the cash. The total loss amounted to £460,000.

All supplied Mexican identities but were confirmed as Colombian citizens through fingerprint analysis. They were jailed and recommended for removal from the UK on release:

Henry Francisco Ortega Pabon –  jailed for five and a-half years

Luis Antonio Ramirez Nino – jailed for two years

Victor Elias Ramos Gonzalez  – jailed for nine months

September 2013

Officers from the Met’s Safer Transport Command, British Transport Police, London Regional Intelligence Unit and South East Regional Organised Crime Unit were deployed in and around the Earls Court international jewellery fair.

On the final day of the fair, police spotted a group of eight Latin Americans who they noticed closely watching a jewellery trader leaving the fair.

He was followed on the tube to Paddington, where the group attempted to steal what they thought was a bag of jewellery. Police intervened and detained three of the suspects who were later charged with conspiracy to steal:

Juan Franciso Contreras Blum, Colombian national – jailed at Blackfriars Crown Court for 12 months

Wilson Roman Preciado , a Colombian national – jailed at Blackfriars Crown Court for 12 months and removed to Colombia inFeb 2014 on completion of his sentence

Gladys Betulia Avila Villamil, a Colombian national – jailed at Blackfriars Crown Court for 12 months.

January 2014

Claudia Santos, of Colombian descent, was arrested in as a result of proactive work by the Met’s London Crime Squad and an extensive investigation by Sussex Police.

Inside the vehicle she was driving was a bag containing a centre punch for smashing windows, two large screwdrivers, gloves and mobile phones.

Examination of a computer at her home found she had researched more than 800 address across 20 police force areas – specifically searching for Asian names.

She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to burgle 10 properties across Sussex, West Mercia, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent between 17 September and 11 October 2012.

Two further counts of conspiracy to burgle were left to lie on file.

Between November 2012 and March 2013, 114 identified Colombians were arrested for this type of criminality.

From May 2014 to date, the number of arrests of Latin Americans linked to this organised criminal group has dropped dramatically with as few as ten linked to any similar offences, either in London or elsewhere in the UK.

Operation Phoenix’s final piece of work has been to ensure the Police National Computer clearly identifies 150 Colombian nationals as having used fraudulent passports so this can be picked up if they try to enter the UK or other countries again.

In May 2014 officers became aware a new organised criminal group had entered the UK from Colombia, again claiming to be Mexican and using the same modus operandi. The group was quickly linked to more than 50 offences throughout the UK.

An offshoot operation, called Stork, was set up and five members of the group arrested for 23 offences in eight forces, including London. Two were convicted of conspiracy to burgle and jailed.

Detective Chief Inspector Tim Gray, from the Met’s Intelligence Development and Support unit, said:

Operation Phoenix has been a resounding success leading to the arrest of several ruthless and organised burglars as well as the disruption and prevention of many further offences.

The offenders concerned had crossed international boundaries such was their propensity to commit these awful crimes. They concentrated their offending against members of the Asian community many of whom were elderly or vulnerable. The key to the success of this investigation was police forces and law enforcement agencies working together to dismantle what proved to be a highly sophisticated and organised criminal network.

Kevin Moore, intelligence manager for the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit, added:

This was a protracted and highly intensive operation. We realised that the gang was operating without boundaries and therefore joined up our capabilities to investigate this group.

Asian families across the UK had been targeted over a long period of time and we developed strong ties with Latin American countries in order to correctly identify this international criminal gang.

We continue to use all our capabilities to target, disrupt and stop serious organised groups who do the most serious harm to our communities.”

Ambassador of Colombia Néstor Osorio said:

The Colombian and British agencies have been working closely throughout Operation Phoenix and the Embassy of Colombia in London regrets the involvement of Colombian nationals in any criminal activity in the United Kingdom.

Furthermore we stress that this incident in no way reflects the nature of thousands of hard-working Colombians living in the UK as law-abiding citizens.

The Colombian authorities will continue to work in partnership with their British counterparts through the existing co-operation channels in order to tackle any criminal activities affecting both countries.”

The agencies involved in Operation Phoenix were:

London Regional Intelligence Unit (LRIU)
South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU)
The Met
The Met and Tfl’s Safer Transport Command
ACPO Criminal Records Officer (ACRO)
National Crime Agency (NCA)
Border Force (UKBF)
Home Officer Immigration Enforcement (HOIE)
Home Office Immigration Enforcement representative in Bogota
Colombian National Crime Bureau
Mexican Embassy
Colombian Embassy

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