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Robbing Your Rides: Vehicle thefts continue to climb in El Paso; how local teens are playing a part

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- El Pasoan Angela Barton still remembers the exact moment she realized her Kia Sorento had been broken into. The Northeast El Paso resident was headed to work in her other vehicle when she noticed her Kia was heavily damaged.

Barton told ABC-7 that the vehicle had sentimental value since it once belonged to her father and was passed down to her.

"I mean, you work hard for your vehicle, so why would someone come out and destroy that vehicle knowing that it was actually, you know, something that we worked for? They're not paying for it. And of course, they may never find the people that are breaking in. So we're left with nothing," Barton said.

The insurance company would end up paying Barton $10,000, but she is part of a growing number of victims.

Stephen Plummer, the public awareness manager for the El Paso Police Department’s Auto Theft Task Force, explained these types of crimes continue to occur daily.

"Because we are a border city and there's a narcotics trade, there's human smuggling. There's a lot of other crimes that are committed, and they use stolen vehicles. And the larger the vehicle, the better. Mostly because of the terrain and the payload capacity of these vehicles."

Plummer said that in the last 2 to 3 years, auto thefts in El Paso have risen by over 50%.

He explained that Kias and Hyundais have become the new targets and are being stolen more often, which wasn't the norm. Plummer said these vehicles became targets after a tutorial teaching others how to break into them gained popularity on social media.

Modern thieves use a simple USB to hack into these vehicles, allowing them to drive off.

"Of course, it's disheartening. You know, you get something like that, it goes out and it becomes a challenge. You know, the KIA Boys are just one little group. You know? They go around stealing them. They sensationalize this whole thing. And other teenagers, you know, they see this, 'Hey, we can do that, too.' We can get away with this,'" he said.

Plummer said many times a substantial amount of damage is done to vehicles. He said EPPD's recovery rate is between 35 and 40%, and some are never recovered.

"It is nonstop. Our investigators are completely inundated with cases, so it may take a while for them to get to certain cases. They try to follow up cases that have evidence on them right away that we can go and get our hands on that, that we can possibly get warrants for individuals.”

ABC-7 combined data from the El Paso Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

  • In 2020, 937 vehicles were reported stolen throughout the El Paso region.
  • In 2021, the numbers continued to rise, 1,182 cars were stolen.
  • In 2022, the region began to see a significant rise, with over 1,718 vehicles gone.
  • Last year, in 2023, 2,645 vehicles were stolen.
  • And this year, so far, 840 vehicles have been reported stolen by both agencies.

Plummer explained that many of the thieves behind the thefts are teens.

"They're not getting away with it. They're getting criminal records on, on stealing these cars. And it's for no purpose."

Katy Ayala, trial team chief at the juvenile unit with the county attorney’s office, said over the last year they have seen a significant rise in juveniles taking part in these crimes. She blamed this recent spike on TikTok.

"What you are seeing is juveniles prepared, knowing what they are doing, coming in with knowing what they're doing, coming in with latex gloves, screwdrivers, you know, anything able to get into that car. We're also seeing juveniles targeting specific cars. And, you know, it's been reported the KIAs are targeted vehicle. And the amount of cases that are coming in has just been very noticeable."

Ayala said many times there's no motive.

"They think it's fun. They think it's a, it's a little scheme. And so they get involved into a bigger scheme where it's not just one individual doing it. It's a group. And the groups keeps growing larger and larger where they're working together to continue doing these schemes of car thefts and burglaries," she said.

Ayala said these thieves can face felonies. She said lookouts are just as responsible as the driver.

She explained that in many cases, these juvenile thieves have become well-trained, something Barton can attest to.

"They knew because there was no fingerprints on the like on the door panel. There was no fingerprints on the inside. There's no fingerprints where they had opened the door, like pulled the handle to open it. There was no fingerprints. They dusted the steering wheel steering column as well as the dashboard area behind no fingerprints," Barton said.

Barton like many others, was forced to make changes. She set up security cameras outside of her apartment complex and installed more lights around her property.

"It's not going to stop, and it hurts," Barton said.

The El Paso Police Department continues to warn drivers to remain vigilant when stepping away from these vehicles.

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Rosemary Montañez

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