Pubdate: Sun, 11 May 2008
Source: Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, AZ)
Copyright: 2008 Arizona Daily Star
Author: Dale Quinn, Staff Writer


Home Invasions, kidnappings target Rival Traffickers, Echo Mexico Horrors

Drug-fueled home invasions, kidnappings and other violent crimes have
surged in Tucson recently, echoing the drug war raging in northern
Mexico. As law enforcement cracks down on smuggling along the border,
officials say, traffickers increasingly are turning to more desperate
measures to continue their criminal activity.

In some cases, smuggling groups turn on each other, finding it easier
to steal from competitors than bring drugs across the border
themselves. And although the violence is most likely to hit those
engaged in drug-related activities, there's always the risk that it
will spill over and involve innocent people - a possibility that local
law-enforcement agencies are scrambling to confront.

The violence is driven in part by the massive amount of drugs flowing
through Arizona, officials say.

Although it's one of four states along the U.S.-Mexico border, 60
percent of illegal drugs that end up in the country come through
Arizona, said Tucson Police Department Capt. Terry Rozema, commander
of the multiagency Counter Narcotics Alliance.

Drug trafficking always has been a brutal trade, but lately the
violence is on the rise, officials say.

In response, the Pima County Sheriff's Department, now assisted by the
U.S. Border Patrol, recently created two border-crime units that
target human and drug smugglers in rural areas.

The growing threat in the city prompted the formation last month of a
home-invasion unit, staffed with a sergeant, five detectives, a crime
analyst and a clerk, said Sgt. Matt Ronstadt, the unit's supervisor.
"The criminal element recognizes it's probably easier to obtain a
large quantity of narcotics or cash from someone who's already done
the hard work of shipping the product and finding a place to store
it," he said. "We've seen some violent periods on and off in the
past," said Special Agent Anthony J. Coulson, the assistant special
agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tucson
district. "And I've seen an increasing level of violence in Tucson
that's drug-related." Drug-related killings can stem from several
factors, he said, such as an unpaid debt or going behind the back of
one organization to sell drugs to another.

And if a smuggler loses several drug loads, it could cost him his
life. It's not so much a matter of the lost money - a couple hundred
pounds of marijuana lost can be absorbed by the cartel - but to send
the message that such losses won't be tolerated, Rozema said.

Two Mexican cartels - the Gulf and the Sinaloa cartels - control the
flow of drugs, and their presence creates a "dynamic pressure" in
Arizona, Coulson said.

The two cartels agreed to share the Arizona corridor after deadly
gunfights in Cananea, Sonora, in May 2007, Coulson said. "The cartels,
they smuggle the drugs through, and these organizations work on both
sides of the border," he said. "And everybody in between works for
these cartels in some form or fashion."

As drugs move from distributors in Mexico to consumers in the United
States, some of them pause in Tucson, where they are repackaged for
their trips throughout the country, Rozema said.

Drug rip-off specialists

That creates the opportunity for drug rip-off specialists who use home
invasions - two to four armed intruders bursting into a house and demanding
cash or drugs - as a preferred tactic. It isn't new, but recently the
rip-offs have become increasingly visible and violent, Coulson said.

The exact number of these drug rip-off crews isn't known, but Rozema,
the Counter Narcotics Alliance commander, said as many as a dozen may
be operating in the area.

Tucson police were unable to provide specific information about when,
where and how many home invasions have occurred this year. Officials
said that information was still being analyzed and compiled. The
robbers, usually drug traffickers themselves, find out locations of
stash houses from paid informants or through word of mouth. "There is
some semblance of an organized structure," Ronstadt said. There is
also a good possibility that victims and robbers know one another or
are associated with one another other.

That works in favor of the robbers, because the crime often goes
unreported, and victims are uncooperative with investigators,
officials said. But rather than lose a drug load, officials said,
traffickers are likely to defend their stash.

On April 23, a man was shot in the leg at his West Side house when two
men confronted him and his two friends in his garage. According to the
residents, the assailants demanded money and jewelry before a scuffle
ensued and the men fled.

The next day, another man was shot in the leg at a house near Tucson
International Airport. The victims told police that three men, two of
them armed with handguns, pulled up in a Ford pickup, and one of the
robbers tried to get into the house.

Rarely hit the wrong house Police say the home-invasion robbery was
most likely drug-related, and a woman living in the house was forced
to flee with four children under age 6, including one infant.

In both cases, police said the homes were targeted, and investigators
don't believe the robbers hit the wrong house.

Since the home-invasion unit was formed on April 6, there have been
about two or three incidents per week, Ronstadt said. The robbers
usually don't hit the wrong house - but sometimes they do. On Feb. 28,
three intruders violently confronted a man and his toddler daughter at
their home in the 5800 block of East Sanderling Drive, in Littletown,
south of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The man, whose name has not been released because he was never charged
with a crime, called authorities and said he had shot one of the
intruders. When police arrived, they found Carlos Ramirez Valenzuela,
34, of Tucson dead. Police said the intruders were likely searching
for drugs, but they hit the wrong house.

People living in the neighborhood agreed. The residents of a house
just a few doors from where the deadly home invasion occurred have
since been evicted, and neighbors said drug dealers might have lived
there. One neighbor, Ryan Vandenbrand, 23, said he has considered
moving since the home invasion, especially considering that other
robberies and burglaries have occurred nearby.

Vandenbrand said he and his roommates get anxious when they hear odd
sounds around the house. Another neighbor, Janice Wiebelhaus, 25, said
she has added concerns because of her 6-year-old son and 2-year-old
daughter. "It was really scary, because we're from South Dakota and
we're not used to having that happen," she said.

Some of her neighbors have loud parties late at night, and people pull
up to houses and leave their cars running for quick visits, which she
finds suspicious.

"We don't keep firearms in the house, so we wouldn't have been
prepared" for a home-invasion robbery, she said.

If there were a stronger sense of community in the neighborhood, she
said, she and her husband might feel safer.

But even when the robbers get the right house, it can have grisly
results. Heriberto Lopez Felix, 42, was shot to death on April 6 in
front of his teenage son outside his home in the 2500 block of West
Ajo Way, west of South La Cholla Boulevard, according to the Sheriff's

Four men in a red pickup pulled up in front of Felix's house and
confronted him before opening fire. Inside the house, deputies found
244 pounds of marijuana, which was the likely target of the home
invasion, said Sgt. Jesus Lopez, head of the Sheriff's Department
homicide unit. On April 19, an Oro Valley woman notified police that
her boyfriend had disappeared.

According to Tucson police, Sarayut "Bill" Tilley managed a property
that was being used to store a substantial amount of marijuana. When
the drugs disappeared, three men kidnapped Tilley, thinking he was
involved in the theft, said Sgt. Mark Robinson, a Tucson Police
Department spokesman.

Tilley, 41, was held captive in a house in the 1600 block of East
Roger Road, and when he got a chance to escape, he went for it,
Robinson said. During his escape, he and one of his captors struggled
over a gun, and Tilley shot the man.

The kidnapper, who later died from the injury, was identified by
police as Fernando Augustine Luzania-Coronado, 19, a Mexican citizen.
One of the two other kidnappers then shot Tilley, but he managed to
escape and survived the ordeal.

Tucson police say they hope that cracking down on criminals and
punishing home invaders will make robbers think twice about raiding
someone else's property.

"Considering the short time we've been doing it, and even though these
are new detectives (to the unit), I think we've already made a dent
and made some good progress in connecting these cases," Ronstadt said.
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