On the night of Aug. 5, 2009, Brenda Arenas' mother took her shopping. The 15-year-old girl was jazzed about looking for a dress for her quinceañera, a Latino coming-of-age ritual marking the transition to womanhood.
The sophomore from Sunnyside High in Tucson, Ariz., found her dress and was heading home. Her mother needed to make a stop on the way. So the family sedan that carried Brenda, her 3-year-old sister in the rear seat, and her mother pulled into the parking lot of a Circle K convenience store.
Moments earlier a few blocks to the west, six armed men exited a house they had mistakenly broken into in an attempt to steal a rival crew's drug load.
Three of those men — later identified as Christian Betza Vasquez, 24; Orel S. Vasquez, 19; and Juan Carlos Leon, 27 — ran east toward the Circle K, following the botched home invasion.
The men attempted to carjack the Arenas' sedan. But Brenda's mother refused to stop the vehicle even when the men pointed their pistols at her. One of the men then fired a round that punched through the front windshield, striking the 15-year-old in the head and leaving her in critical condition.
Brenda's mom raced inside the store and pleaded with the clerk to call 911 as the suspects fled in a grey SUV, possibly a Dodge Durango. Rescue personnel transported the girl to the University Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 8:50 p.m.
"Instead of her using her dress to attend her quinceañera, she was buried in it," says Sgt. Bob Jimenez of the Tucson Police Department. "It was a very sad story that affected a lot of people here in Tucson."
Jimenez now heads the Tucson PD's home-invasion unit, which was formed in part due to the community's outrage following Brenda's tragic death. Unfortunately, there has been no justice for Brenda Arenas. Three warrants were issued, but the suspects have never been caught. Jimenez thinks they fled to Mexico immediately after the crime.
A Growing Problem
Teenage girls like Brenda Arenas are not the typical victims of home invasion robberies; she was an innocent caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most home invasion victims are not so innocent.
The Tucson PD reported 150 home invasions in 2008 and another 115 in 2009, the year Brenda Arenas was killed. Statistics for the rest of the nation are hard to come by. The crime isn't tracked by many law enforcement agencies or nationally by the FBI, which lumps them in with burglaries or assaults. But one thing is sure, law enforcement officials say the incidence of home invasion robbery is on the rise nationwide, in large part due to the activities of Mexican drug cartels.
The incidence of home invasions may even be higher than law enforcement officials think. Home invasions often go unreported because the mid- or higher-level dealer "victim" won't report the crime to police. Single ransoms have exceeded $1 million in Phoenix, where exchanges are often arranged without the involvement of law enforcement.
Drug-related home invasions are especially prevalent in the Sunbelt. Southern Arizona, Texas, and Atlanta serve as distribution points for traffickers delivering narcotic loads from Mexican drug trafficking organizations to distribution points where dealers and street gangs wait for their arrival.
Law enforcement experts say that home invasions are often the way that the DTOs force associates to pay their debts. Cartel associates who fail to deliver narcotic loads — even if the drugs fall into the hands of law enforcement — can pay a heavy price. Their employers enforce discipline by kidnapping, torture, and murder and fines for poor performance are often exacted by extortion.
Going in Hot
Home invasions are "hot" burglaries that can be classified into several categories, including armed burglaries, meth addicts looking for dope, street robbers looking for targets of opportunity, drug deals gone bad, illegal aliens working off drug debt, and ransom kidnappings.