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Armed robbers attack three Hispanic men

CLEARWATER — A wave of violence against Hispanic men in Clearwater continued early Sunday with another armed robbery, assault and shooting.

The latest incident brings the tally to 52 robberies of Hispanic men this year; three people have been shot.

It happened shortly before 2:30 a.m. when two men held up three victims at gunpoint in a parking lot on the east side of 2036 Alpine Road. One of the victims was shot, the other pistol-whipped.

The robberies have scared Hispanic residents, said Odilon Mezquite, 44, a leader in the Hispanic community.

"We're worried," said Mezquite, adding that he planned to talk to police officials soon for tips on how local Hispanics can protect themselves.

According to police, Sunday's attack happened when two robbers demanded money from three men standing in a parking lot.

But the victims had no money.

One of the would-be robbers struck Javier Martinez-Vaquero in the face with a gun and then shot Juan Carlos of Clearwater. Carlos was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa for the gunshot wound; he was in fair condition Sunday evening.

The gunmen then fled in a black Ford Ranger with an extended cab that was parked across Alpine Road, police said. The street is just south of Union Street, between N Betty Lane and N Hyland Avenue.

Police identified the shooter as a thin black man, about 20 years old, 5-7 to 5-10. He was wearing a black jacket with the hood pulled up, long blue shorts and carried a handgun.

The other attacker was described as a white man with long blond hair, about 20 years old, 5 feet tall and 130 pounds, according to police. He was wearing a light blue jacket with the hood pulled up and long blue shorts.

In October, Clearwater police warned Hispanic residents about 45 cases that fit a similar profile: Hispanic men, walking alone or riding their bikes, often at night, have been stopped by two or more black men, ages 17 to 25, and robbed at gunpoint.

Since then, seven more attacks have been reported.

In October, Officer Brian Munoz, the Hispanic outreach liaison officer for the Police Department, said the attacks appeared to be "crimes of opportunity" and not racially motivated.

Three-quarters of the robberies took place between 10 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. The robbers often wore masks or jackets with the hoods pulled up. In most cases, the victim was knocked to the ground, kicked and punched or had a gun held to his head. The robbers took wallets, bikes and cell phones.

The latest crime fit many of those patterns, except that one robber was white.

Five arrests have been made so far this year in connection with the robberies. But the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office decided not to file charges against three of the people arrested because of problems with victim cooperation and suspect identification.

Elizabeth Watts, Clearwater public safety spokeswoman, did not return calls for comment on Sunday.

Clearwater has a large and growing Hispanic population. Hispanics make up 17 to 18 percent of the city's population, according to a city official, with roughly 75 percent of the population from the Mexican state of Hidalgo. Many work in restaurants as cooks or dishwashers and have to travel late at night.

Mezquite, the community activist, said many local Hispanics carry cash because they believe they lack proper documentation to open bank accounts.

"They don't have paperwork to open accounts in banks so they carry money and it's a target for people," he said.

But community groups are trying to let Hispanic residents know that they don't need U.S.-issued driver's licenses to open bank accounts. Banks will accept Mexican identification cards.

Police ask that anyone with information on the recent robbery and shooting call Clearwater police at (727) 562-4422.

Times staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

. fast facts

Safety tips

The majority of the robberies have been during late-night and early-morning hours on Clearwater streets. Police recommend a few common-sense measures: Walk with a group, be aware of your surroundings, avoid carrying large amounts of money and pick a safe route that stays away from dark areas.

Armed robbers attack three Hispanic men 12/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 2:17pm]

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