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REGIONAL REPORT : Crime, Abuses Hound Latino Immigrants

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It starts in the dark wilderness at the Mexican border, where illegal immigrants run a gantlet of murderous bandits and treacherous alien smugglers. When these voyagers--and even some legal immigrants--reach their destinations to the north, more danger can follow:

* An Immigration and Naturalization Service agent is arrested and charged with allegedly abducting and sexually assaulting six women on the streets of Los Angeles, then threatening them with deportation if they turned him in.

* A con man in Orange County tells a group of day laborers that he is hiring them to clean a hotel pool, provides cutoff shorts and stores their clothes and wallets in plastic bags. Then he drops the men off and drives away, leaving them broke and humiliated.

* Spanish-speaking domestics call a hot line to report sexual abuse by employers in wealthy neighborhoods, including Bel-Air. But most callers refuse to go to the authorities.

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* In the San Fernando Valley, five catering truck workers are killed and their bodies are dumped beside a canyon road. Police say that the owner, Ismael Cervantes Sr., had been robbed before but chose not to report the crime.

“We get robbed all the time,” said Maximino Esqueda, 68, a sun-beaten pushcart vendor in a cowboy hat. But he added that many vendors do not call police.

“They say it’s better not to,” he said. “You’ll just have more problems.”

The vendors’ plight illustrates the vulnerability of many working-class Latino immigrants in Southern California to a broad range of crimes. Mistrustful of banks, or sometimes unable to secure bank accounts if they are illegally here, they carry cash. Often, they are reluctant to call the police because they are in the country illegally, speak little English or fear retaliation.

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In Pacoima, detectives determined last year that more than half the robberies of pushcart vendors probably went unreported.

“They are perfect targets,” Officer Ismael Aldaz said. “Their mentality is: ‘At least I didn’t get killed.’ ”

Throughout Southern California, police and immigrant advocacy groups are focusing more attention on the high victimization rates and low crime reporting among Latino immigrants.

Unreported crime among other immigrants and refugees is also a well-known and alarming phenomenon. The demographics of Latino immigrant communities place them at particularly high risk of crime compared to non-Latinos because of the population’s relative youth, poverty and concentration in urban neighborhoods, according to a federal report issued last year.

While more aggressive efforts are being mounted to deal with the problem in the Latino community, police and immigrant rights groups are finding that limited resources and cultural barriers remain obstacles.

“The police are already swamped with crime that is reported,” said Hubert Williams of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank devoted to law enforcement issues.

Experts say fear remains a problem among illegal immigrants who believe--accurately or not--that they could be deported if they contact authorities.

“If we are going to face the reality of who our neighbors are,” said Anne Kamsvaag of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights--Los Angeles, “the fact is that here’s this sizable and growing population of people who fear the cops and are afraid of having any contact with them. It affects witnesses, victims who don’t want to testify, your next-door neighbor who doesn’t call the police when he sees your house being burglarized.”

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In the general population, a national survey in 1988 by the U.S. Justice Department found that victims reported almost 50% of violent crimes, such as robberies and assaults, and about 40% of household crimes, such as burglaries. Crime reporting levels were lower in poor and minority areas.

A 1990 federal report on Latino victims found them more likely than non-Latinos to be the victims of both violent and household crimes, with a rate of 11 robberies and 12 aggravated assaults per 1,000, compared to six robberies and 10 aggravated assaults per 1,000 among non-Latinos. Latino respondents also were less likely to report some crimes, the 1990 report said.

But that study did not distinguish foreign-born from U.S.-born victims. Comparable surveys have not been done among Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, especially illegal immigrants, experts said. But they add that abundant anecdotal evidence indicates that unreported crime is higher among these groups and that the phenomenon poses a major law enforcement challenge for the 1990s.

Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters said: “Even with people with legal status, there’s a low reporting level. What about the people who aren’t here legally? You could have a crime wave going on and have little knowledge of it.”

“Everyone I talk to in the field has said unreported crime among immigrants is a great problem and that it’s higher than in the general population,” said Brian Ogawa, author of “Color of Justice,” a study of minority crime victims by the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning.

In addition to fear of deportation, some immigrants shy away from contact with authorities based on experiences with corrupt or abusive police in other countries.

Isabel Beltran, 43, a Salvadoran-born refugee counselor in Los Angeles, knows firsthand the fears felt by many of the Central Americans she works with.

The mentality can persist after living for years in the United States, even among those with legal status such as herself, Beltran said. She described an incident in which two youths jumped into her car one night when she was at a stoplight and held her at gunpoint. They made her drive around for half an hour, threatened her and robbed her before letting her go, she said.

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Beltran said she wanted to report the crime, then decided against it.

“My first reaction was fear,” she said. “I just wanted to go home. I guess my fear was the fear that many people have, that the police wouldn’t be able to do anything. Or that they wouldn’t believe me. I have worked in political movements here and in my country, and I have been threatened because of my political activity. . . . I have heard of cases of discrimination by the police in my work. Maybe that’s what finally caused my decision.”

Even in the United States, actions by some law enforcement officers can discourage immigrant crime victims from coming forward.

In 1990, Los Angeles police officers rescued a group of immigrants from smugglers holding them for ransom, then turned the kidnapers and victims over to the INS. Police said the INS was needed to determine who were the victims and who were the kidnapers.

Advocacy groups sued the Police Department. The City Council proposed strengthening an existing policy that limits INS-LAPD cooperation and bars police officers from turning over to the INS anyone not suspected of a serious crime. The matter is pending before the Police Commission.

A similar dispute in San Diego concerns a proposed anti-crime patrol that would be assigned downtown and team up police with the U.S. Border Patrol. The unit operated on a pilot basis in the fall and was created in response to rising crime. Border Patrol agents participated because officials said illegal immigrants accounted for nearly 30% of downtown arrests.

Immigrant rights advocates charge that cooperation between police and Border Patrol will discourage crime reporting and result in police officers doing the INS’ job. Police say they are targeting criminals and that their policy against detaining illegal immigrants who are not suspects is unchanged.

Whether top brass or street cops, police around the region insist that they are not concerned with immigration status of victims or witnesses.

Still, LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, who recently created a police-civilian advisory committee to examine the needs of an estimated 300,000 Spanish-speaking residents in the city’s Valley Bureau, acknowledged that some in the Latino community “exist under double levels of fear.”

“One is fear of being victimized. If they have a fear of crime, well, a lot of people have a fear of crime. If they have a fear of the people whom they are supposed to call when they are victims, we need to deal with that,” he said.

When strong-arm robberies increased in parts of South-Central Los Angeles in 1989, police determined that many victims were recent immigrants who had been robbed repeatedly.

“You would find out about three or four unreported crimes just talking to one person,” said Veronica Jenkins, a Spanish-speaking officer who interviewed the victims and served as a decoy in an undercover anti-robbery detail.

Jenkins feigned an accent and the appearance of the working-class victims, dressing in plainclothes and acting timid. She would wait at a bus stop or drive an old car to an isolated street and pretend to have engine trouble while concealed backup officers watched. On many evenings she did not wait long. Some brazen would-be robbers bragged of their intentions to undercover officers posing as bystanders, said Sgt. Ken Kesner, who headed the unit.

Once, Jenkins was approached from different directions by two assailants. She watched them argue over rights to the prey.

“They stepped to one side,” Jenkins said. “They were whispering: ‘I saw her first.’ ”

Criminals see immigrant women as especially vulnerable, according to “Color of Justice,” the state study, which quotes a rape counselor in Los Angeles as saying that there is an epidemic of unreported sexual assaults.

Sandra Cacavas, director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Assaults Against Women, agrees. She described the plaintive calls from Spanish-speaking domestics who say they have been sexually abused by their employers. Most of them are too afraid to call police.

Another example is the alleged crime spree of INS agent James Riley. He awaits trial on charges that he sexually assaulted seven Latino women, six of them suspected illegal immigrants, after stopping them on streets in the San Fernando Valley and demanding their documents.

The alleged offenses span a year and a half, ending when a Salvadoran woman came forward. Investigators held news conferences to seek other victims. More than 100 identification cards of young Latinas were found in Riley’s apartment.

Still, the classic predator is nonviolent, experts say.

“The most common crime is not violence. It is not gangs or drugs,” said Santa Ana Police Officer Jose Vargas, who runs a one-man Hispanic Affairs Office. “The most common crime is fraud.”

In elaborate scams, shady immigration counselors pocket thousands of dollars for meaningless paperwork. Crooked money-handling agencies promise to wire money to home countries and it never gets there. Bogus moving companies charge a fee for moving a family’s hard-won possessions back to Mexico, then disappear with the money and property.

“It’s like a game to them: ‘How can I take these people’s money?’ ” said Detective Bino Herrera of the LAPD anti-fraud unit called Operation Swindlers, or Operacion Estafadores. “And they get a lot.”

Operation Estafadores, run by three detectives out of a Boyle Heights storefront, gets about 40 calls a week, Herrera said.

“They come or they call from all over the county, from Ventura County, from Orange County,” he said. “So we’ll take a crime report or refer them to the right station. Sometimes it’s really a civil case.”

The campaign to improve police-community rapport after the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers has created new receptivity to such initiatives, experts said.

Community forums and programs in divisions such as Foothill, where King was beaten, have been presented in Spanish and emphasized communication with the Spanish-speaking community. The LAPD is also planning an Estafadores-type storefront program for the growing Latino community in south Los Angeles, officials said.

Programs elsewhere include a weekly cable television program in Oxnard started three years ago by Detective Rafael Nieves. “Street Beat” features Spanish-speaking guests from county law enforcement and live callers discussing law enforcement issues.

At the San Diego-Tijuana border, the newest incarnation of the well-known Border Crime Intervention Unit has been operating for two years to protect the people who often carry all their money and possessions on dashes through canyons and border neighborhoods. The unit works with a Mexican counterpart that began operating across the border a year ago.

Police said border crime is down overall. The number of homicides dropped from 11 in 1988 to three this year.

Despite such efforts, people such as the pushcart vendors of Pacoima remain on the streets and in the shadows, afraid of the predators and those sworn to protect.

Pausing on a working-class street of bungalows and wooden fences splattered with graffiti, vendor Rufino Lopez said he worries about being robbed all the time. He has considered carrying a knife, but he thinks that might make the danger worse.

“The cholos . . . could kill me,” said Lopez, a slight 23-year-old from Oaxaca, Mexico, referring to gang members.

Lopez said five men robbed him at knifepoint recently in Sepulveda and made off with $50 and his pushcart. He said some vendors--most of whom are either old men or young new arrivals--work in pairs to reduce the risks. That cuts into earnings, however, and does not always prevent stickups.

Cervantes, the slain North Hollywood catering truck owner, was in a group of five.

When asked where he keeps his cash, Lopez pulled a wad of bills from his pocket--$70 earned in three days. He said he has no choice but to carry the money. He does not want to leave it at his apartment, which he shares with five men.

“It’s not safe there, either,” he said. “It’s not safe anywhere.”

Times staff writers Lisa Castiglione, James Gomez and Larry Speer contributed to this story.


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