Raleigh robberies targeting Hispanics

Staff WriterMarch 22, 2008 

— Police have distributed hundreds of posters warning residents about a rash of armed robberies targeting Hispanics in the downtown district.

The flier from the Raleigh Police Department's robbery squad says multiple robberies have occurred over several months.

Tony Asion, executive director of the statewide Latino advocacy group El Pueblo, said there have been more than 30 robberies. Asion, a former Delaware State Police officer who became head of El Pueblo this month, said many Latinos, especially ones here illegally, distrust police and are reluctant to report crime.

"We've had several cases where the victims call here," he said. "We try to get them to call the police, and they don't want to for fear of being deported."

Asion described a growing distrust among Latinos statewide and blamed it on a program in which the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency works with local law enforcement to combat illegal immigration.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole touted the Senate's approval of an amendment she offered to provide more money to help local law enforcement agencies "apprehend, identify and remove criminal illegal aliens." The amendment would provide an additional $75 million.

About a half-dozen North Carolina counties, including Mecklenburg and Alamance, have already partnered with ICE.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison announced this year that his office was also seeking resources to implement the program, but they have not yet been approved by the federal government. This year, if the sheriff's office is approved, ICE will provide training and equipment, while the sheriff's office will provide the manpower to ferret out illegal immigrants in custody at the Wake County jail.

Asion said many in the Latino community have no problem with law enforcement deporting convicted felons and people found guilty of driving while impaired. But he says Latinos who are here illegally also are being deported for minor offenses, such as driving without a license.

"Our position here is that they should check a person's immigration status after they have been convicted, not before," Asion said.

Asion said the program has bred distrust and fear of the police among Latinos, leading to the underreporting of crime in their communities and elsewhere. Asion said Latinos will also refuse to report crimes that they may witness, including those that affect the wider community.

"I worked for 20 years as a cop with the Delaware State Police," he said. "It took us a long time to gain the trust of Latinos in Delaware. Now we are watching something that took years to gain go south in a matter of weeks."

Raleigh police officials could not be reached for comment Friday about the downtown robberies or the reluctance of Hispanics to report crimes.

Harrison thinks some Hispanic leaders are resorting to "scare tactics" about the partnership with ICE and said his concern is to apply the law fairly to avoid the distrust Asion talks about.

"I think everybody should be fed out of the same spoon," Harrison said Friday. "You can't pick and choose which laws that are violated [will lead to deportation]."

In addition, Harrison said, "If people aren't reporting these crimes, then why are people finding out about it?"

Asion said Latinos are easy targets for robberies because of how they keep their money. Asion said many are not comfortable with banks and either carry large amounts of money because they do not know the people they are living with or leave large amounts of cash at home, becoming targets for home invasion robberies.

That's what happened last month east of downtown when a masked gunman crashed through the apartment door of Carlos Humberto Martinez, who dreamed of moving back to Honduras one day and owning a farm. The gunman demanded cash and then shot Martinez, 24, to death.

Asion pointed to future troubles unless fences are mended between Latinos and the police.

"The sad part is, if the police don't regain the trust of the people, then pseudo-police force could take place, especially among the youth," Asion said. " 'Call us, and we'll take care of it.' But then the gang that starts out taking care of the neighborhood ends up going out of control."

(News researcher Lamara Williams contributed to this report.)

thomasi.mcdonald@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4533

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