CLEARWATER — For Hispanic men, walking or riding bikes on the streets of Clearwater has become a dangerous proposition at night.
The Clearwater Police Department is warning about a troubling trend of armed robberies in which Hispanic men are held up at gunpoint.
The trend was first highlighted in early October, when crime analysts pointed to 45 such robberies since the beginning of the year. In the two months since, there have been six more, five of them in the area of U.S. 19 and Drew Street.
In the vast majority of the robberies, the Hispanic men were stopped late at night while riding bicycles or walking.
"This is a real big problem," said Oscar Aldana, president of the Mexican Council of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit community group.
He said people are scared to ride their bicycles at night. "They try to do whatever they can in the daytime," he said.
Police and community leaders say Hispanic men are targeted because they often do not use banks and instead carry around large amounts of cash.
Victims have been threatened with guns, pistol-whipped and otherwise struck. At least two of the victims have been shot.
"It's not easy to walk in the nighttime already in any place," said Odilon Mezquite, a community leader who founded the North Saturn Neighborhood Association. He said the recent spate of robberies makes things even worse.
Many of the people in the community, Mezquite added, work in restaurants as cooks or dishwashers, so they have to come home late at night.
Many people don't realize they can set up bank accounts with Mexican identification cards rather than U.S.-issued driver's licenses. Community groups are making an effort to get the word out.
But beyond the issue of documentation, there is a cultural reluctance to put money in banks.
"The majority of folks who have migrated here from Mexico came from an area in Mexico where banking services are not available," said Robin Gomez, auditor for the city of Clearwater and the city's Hispanic-Latino liaison. "Even if they are (available), they just are not used."
Police encourage the men to travel in groups and to choose safe, well-lighted routes in addition to not carrying lots of cash.
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. The other two cases are still under review.
"It is very difficult to build and move forward prosecuting these cases due to a lack of identification and evidence to link the suspects," Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts wrote in an e-mail. "In many of these cases, the robbers are masked with hoodies pulled down over their heads and something covering their faces."
The dynamic of victimizing Hispanic men is not unique to Clearwater and it is not particularly new.
Lourdes Mayorga, past president of the Mexican Council, said this has been a problem for years. She thought the number of incidents might have increased in part because of the worsening economic climate.
"It's sad to know," she said, "that immigrants are an easy target."
Jonathan Abel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.