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Hispanic workers tempting targets for robbers

Santos Sosa returned home from a long day of landscaping last month ready to stretch his legs and fill his lungs with the cool night air. About 9:30, he hopped onto his bicycle to pick up a churro, a doughy pastry, for his daughter. As he rode to the store, two robbers knocked him from his bike. One shoved a gun into his face. "Give us your money or you die," the man said.

Sosa, a 46-year-old Honduran immigrant, emptied $300 from his pockets — two weeks' pay in these tough times — and then watched as the robbers took off with his bike.

It was terrifying for Sosa and his wife and daughter, who became hysterical when he arrived home on foot. And it is an experience that has become increasingly common for Hispanic immigrants in Clearwater and elsewhere around the country as economic conditions worsen and robberies go up.

In 2008 alone, the police said, 55 robberies in Clearwater targeted Hispanic men.

Other communities in the Tampa Bay region, from Dade City in Pasco County to Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County, also have seen crimes targeting Hispanics in recent years. Across the nation, the trend has earned its unfortunate victims a nickname: walking ATMs.

In Clearwater, the vast majority of the robberies have been committed late at night, almost all of them with guns and all but a very few by young black men, police said.

"They're an easy target," said Detective Michael Walek, who works in the robbery-homicide unit of the Clearwater Police Department. "We have a huge population growth of Hispanics in the Clearwater area … and there is a surge of robberies overall."

Experts point to two main factors that make Hispanic men, especially recent Mexican and Central American immigrants, vulnerable:

• Cash. As cooks, dishwashers, and lawn and construction workers, they are sometimes paid in cash. Their reluctance to use bank accounts means that when they get paychecks, they often cash them instead of depositing them.

• Legal status. Immigrants with tenuous legal status can't get a driver's license and often walk or ride their bicycles late at night. These immigrants are less likely to seek help from police because they are afraid of being deported.

Sosa fits the description. He came to the United States legally but overstayed his visa, which means he lacks the documentation to renew his driver's license. He has a checking account but was paid in cash on a Saturday just hours before he was robbed. Already behind on several mortgage payments, Sosa now says he has no way to pay his bills.

"I'm almost bankrupt," he said.

But unlike many victims, Sosa came forward to make a report.

"If you don't call the police," he said, "they are going to kill someone."

• • •

The victims in the 55 robberies in Clearwater lost more than $13,500, according to police reports. One man had $2,200 taken. But the harm to the immigrant Hispanic community goes deeper than that. The rash of robberies has left the community in fear.

Jose Segundo, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant, won't go outside at night by himself anymore. He was jumped the night of Nov. 29 at his apartment complex while taking out the garbage. Two hooded men came up behind him and slugged him with a handgun.

Segundo lost his phone and his wallet with $273 inside.

"I couldn't defend myself," he said. Now he takes out the trash during the day.

Bernardo Uribe, 22, won't go out at night alone either. He was doing laundry in his apartment complex one night several months ago when three men came up and demanded $10.

He tried to convince them that he doesn't speak English, but one of the young men cracked a bottle on his head.

If he and his friends play soccer on weekend afternoons at nearby parks, they make sure to walk home together, Uribe said.

Robin Andujar of Superior Mexico Lindo Supermarket & Deli has seen his employees get their bikes taken.

"They're an easy target," Andujar said of the mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants. He says he can tell by the way they walk, stand and dress whether they are illegal immigrants and likely to have cash on them.

"If I can guess, (the robbers) can guess."

Clearwater police have made five arrests, but the State Attorney's Office has decided not to prosecute any of the cases because of problems identifying the robbers or getting the victims to cooperate.

Walek, the Clearwater detective, said crimes targeting Hispanics are not new, but 2008 was the first year they've been so pronounced.

He attributed the spike to an increase in the Hispanic population and a general surge in robberies. The surge prompted police to create a new unit devoted solely to robberies, effective this month.

In addition to stepped-up patrols and community outreach campaigns, the department has used an undercover decoy, police said.

But law enforcement is only one way communities around the country have addressed the problem. A key part of the strategy is encouraging Hispanics to use bank accounts so that they are not carrying so much cash.

"It's a very common phenomenon around the country,'' said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C. "The practice of having a bank account and having your money in that bank account is probably less prevalent around relatively recent immigrants, whether they have legal status or not. And crooks know that."

Several years ago, Washington Mutual and some other banks started allowing customers to use a Mexican consular identification card as one of two forms of identification required to open an account.

Research shows that Hispanic households aren't as likely as white households to have bank accounts, and the banking rates for recent Hispanic immigrants are thought to be even lower.

While police in Clearwater describe the robberies in terms of black men preying on Hispanics, authorities say these are essentially crimes of opportunity, not signs of racial or ethnic hatred. Recent immigrants just make easy targets.

"The color in question," Rivlin said, "is not brown. It's green."

Uribe, like many of the victims interviewed, agreed. "A lot of people are desperate."

• • •

Hispanic immigrant workers have been victimized in other Tampa Bay communities, but aggressive police work and outreach efforts seem to have reduced the problem.

In 2005, after a spike in robberies against Mexican and Central American construction and lawn care workers near the University of South Florida in Tampa, Hillsborough deputies teamed up with bank officials at a community fair.

They explained the crime reporting process and reassured immigrants that they didn't need to fear the police. Deputies also saturated the area with 24-hour patrols by a specialized street crimes unit. The number of robberies declined.

Hillsborough sheriff's Capt. Ron Hartley witnessed a similar spate of robberies targeting Hispanics in southern Hillsborough County. In Wimauma and Ruskin, Mexican and Central American workers labored in the nearby tomato, vegetable and citrus fields and held many construction jobs during the housing boom.

Deputies made some arrests and launched an aggressive outreach effort to the Hispanic community, Hartley said, teaming up with churches and day care centers to get the word out.

The arrests and the outreach effort apparently worked. Robberies have declined.

The Plant City Police Department saw roughly 30 robberies targeting Hispanics during an 18-month period in 2006 and 2007. Detectives traced the crimes to a single organized gang, the Black Mob. After 10 members of the gang were arrested in a racketeering prosecution, police said, the robberies of Hispanics subsided.

In eastern Pasco County, the Sheriff's Office said, there are crimes targeting Hispanic immigrants, but nothing approaching a rash or a trend.

"Every year when it becomes picking season and people have money, everybody knows it," said Margarita Romo, director of Farmworkers Self-Help Inc., an advocacy group for migrant workers.

Sosa, the Clearwater robbery victim, is trying to get his visa renewed while he works to support his family here and in Honduras. He said workers don't deserve this.

"I don't know what is happening," he said. "We're here just trying to do something better for our lives."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Hispanic workers tempting targets for robbers 01/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 11:56pm]

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