Beer runners gone bad
In most of America, "beer run" means one thing: darting out to buy beer for the night. It is a common term understood by pretty much everyone.
Except in the Southwest.
In the Southwest, "beer run" means heading to the 7-11 or the nearest convenience store, grabbing a 30-pack from the cooler and walking straight out the door without paying.
This is not just some regional quirk of language. It is a bizarre crime phenomenon that happens with astonishing frequency throughout Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
How frequently? Just plug "beer run" into YouTube's search engine, and you can spend hours watching shoplifters on video — good ol' boys caught on surveillance cameras running or strolling right past the cash register with a 30-pack in each hand.
Anywhere else, beer theft is no more notable than swiping a pack of cigarettes. In El Paso, Texas, the police call beer runs "one of our more pressing problems."
How common? Last year, the department reported 2,876 beer runs citywide — a number that is remarkable not only because it works out to eight thefts a day, but because it actually represents a 17 percent drop from 2010.
It's the same problem throughout the Southwest, where police departments have launched public information campaigns, created special task forces and begun posting photos of beer run suspects online.
In Mesa, Ariz., police distribute beer run prevention brochures with a handy form for clerks to report thefts.
In Glendale, Ariz., where beer runs are described as "chronic," the police teamed with the University of Arizona to produce a public service video warning kids not to steal beer.
In Peoria, Ariz,, police used a federal grant to conduct Operation Chug-a-Lug, a beer run crackdown that tallied 67 arrests in less than two months.
"It's pretty basic," said El Paso Times reporter Daniel Borunda, who has written about the thefts. "Usually, it's just a man walking into a convenience store, he grabs a beer and walks right past the register."
7-Eleven Inc. declined to comment on how often beer is stolen from its stores, but the company did acknowledge it has a beer run prevention policy. Among other things, it locks beer cases after midnight and stacks warm beer away from the front doors.
Beer runs are a misdemeanor that may result in little more than a fine — assuming the police bother to make an arrest. The Dallas Police Department recently announced it would no longer respond to shoplifting calls involving less than $50 in merchandise.
Of course, a thief can work up a helluva thirst.
A couple years ago in Albuquerque, N.M., police arrested a guy who stole nearly 2,000 cans in 16 separate beer runs at the same store over a one-month period. They said he'd pick up as many as five 30-packs at a time.
Sometimes beer runs turn violent. Earlier this year, El Paso police shot and wounded a 15-year-old boy during a beer run in which the kid allegedly threatened an officer with a pair of scissors.
But mainly a beer run is just shoplifting. Often it's kids acting on a dare, but judging from the surveillance videos I've watched, it's typically an adult male in his 20s or 30s who obviously knows better.
I spoke with crime experts, court officers and police, and while some said beer runs might be a "local tradition," none could explain how it became so common in the Southwest.
And here's something else they couldn't explain: The preferred choice of beer runners is just plain ol' Bud or Bud Light.
"For whatever reason," Borunda told me, "they don't go for the expensive stuff."