Home Invasions Soar As Thugs Seek Mexico Drug Cash

Reuters, April 21, 2009

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Maria, who has no connection to the criminal underworld, is among scores of law-abiding Tucson residents caught up in a wave of violent so-called home invasions, most of them linked to the lucrative trade in drugs smuggled from Mexico. Maria had bought the house weeks before and the gunmen believed drug traffickers were using it.

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Five years ago, police say home invasions were virtually unheard of in Tucson. Now the crimes run at three to four a week, as criminals go after the profits of the illicit trade in marijuana, black-tar heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine through the city.

“We’ve always dealt with those in business establishments, banks and convenience stores, it was very unusual to see them in houses,” Roberto A. Villasenor, Tucson’s assistant chief of police said of the recent trend. “The home was seen as a safe spot.”

CAUGHT UP

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A year ago, Tucson police department set up a special unit to target the rising number of home invasions. Since then, the officers have investigated at least 173 cases scattered across the city, three-quarters of them tied to the drug trade, investigators say.

The assailants–typically teams of two to six people–frequently dress in tactical gear and identify themselves as police officers, Drug Enforcement Administration agents or SWAT team members as they burst into houses to steal drugs, cash or guns.

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While most raids target the drug trade, some have branched out and gone after students and other law-abiding residents, Azuelo said. Others assault families who just happen to live in a house that was once used to deal drugs, or simply because the attackers got the wrong address.

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SEEKING MORE AID

Last month, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a $184-million plan to crack down on the smuggling of narcotics, guns and money by criminal gangs that threaten security on both sides of the border.

The plan also allocated $59 million to help local law enforcement tackle border-related crime–a lifeline welcomed by Tucson police.

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