U.S. "home invasions" up as thugs seek drug cash

Tue Apr 21, 2009 12:05pm EDT
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By Tim Gaynor

TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - When the heavy battering started to buckle the front door of her new home in Tucson, Maria remained frozen to the spot with fear.

As her family scattered to hide in the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, masked men toting guns and dressed in flack jackets stormed into the living room shouting "Police! Everyone on the floor!"

Her cheek pressed to the ground, she watched as the men fanned out through the comfortable suburban house, pistol whipping her brother-in-law and shouting, "Where are the guns and the drugs?"

"I raised my head and saw his black boots ... It was then I realized they weren't police at all," she recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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.

The desert city is less than two hour's drive from the Mexico border. It lies on a crossroads for the multimillion dollar trade in drugs headed north to market across the United States from Mexico, as well as guns and hot money proceeds headed south to the cartels.

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."   Continued...

<p>A woman who was a victim of a home invasion with her family not long after they moved into their new home poses for a portrait in Tucson, Arizona, April 1, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Lott</p>