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Criminals Prey on Vendors : Violence: Street merchants are increasingly being robbed and beaten. Authorities say many assaults go unreported, primarily because sellers do not trust police.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a $15-a-day job, Julian Dorantes, a 29-year-old ice cream vendor peddling his wares in South-Central Los Angeles, lost his life Aug. 24 when a robber shot him in the chest.

That same afternoon, Luis Perez, a 51-year-old corn vendor from El Salvador, was also killed in a robbery a couple of miles away.

Authorities say murders like these are relatively rare. But in the last 2 1/2 months at least 11 other street merchants have been robbed or mugged. Law enforcement officials say the reported crimes are probably just the tip of the iceberg--that vendors in South-Central are being assaulted with alarming frequency.

Ramon Romero, owner of El Paraiso Paleteria, which supplies 45 ice cream vendors in the Florence area of South-Central Los Angeles, says at least one of his vendors is robbed every week, costing him $200 to $300 every month.

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“I’ve been in the business for 13 years,” Romero said, “and this has been the worst year ever.”

Ice cream vendor Adelaido Perez agrees. Perez, 36, was rolling his paleta cart on Avalon Boulevard one Saturday morning in July when two kids demanded his money and shot him when he told them he had none. The right side of his face is scarred where the bullet pierced him, and he said that a second bullet is lodged in his arm.

“I don’t make enough money to be doing this anymore,” he said, standing in front of his makeshift garage apartment. “It’s just not worth it.”

Authorities acknowledge that accurate statistics of assaults on vendors are hard to come by, partly because many are illegal immigrants.

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“They’re unfamiliar with our system and intimidated by the authorities,” said sheriff’s Detective Joe Martinez, “and the likelihood of reporting (the crime) is small.”

Despite the dangers, street vending is flourishing in the Los Angeles area, with an estimated 5,000 sidewalk merchants in the city. South-Central Los Angeles in particular has seen an influx in recent years.

But vendors say it is hard to make a living when they are routinely robbed, mugged and sometimes killed.

“You have to have a tough hide to earn a nickel around here,” said Juan Torres, 52, standing at Roosevelt Park in front of his red raspado truck bearing crushed ice and fruity syrups for making snow cones. He pointed to the back of his head, where he had been struck the weekend before by eight teen-agers who hurled rocks and broken bottles at him before taking $80 from his pocket. Like many of his fellow vendors, Torres did not report the robbery.

Street vending has traditionally been a way for new immigrants in the United States to enter the economy. But vending is illegal throughout much of Los Angeles County and in the city, although a new city ordinance will legalize such selling in special districts yet to be determined.

Under pressure from public officials and business owners, police have confiscated vendors’ property, issued fines of up to $1,000 and arrested some sidewalk merchants. Such enforcement, combined with the fear of deportation, makes many vendors wary of law enforcement.

“There’s a lack of trust,” said Jose A. Gardea, coordinator of the 400-member Street Vendors Assn. “The vendors work hard and they see the police take away their things.

“If the police arrest you for doing something you see as honorable, how can you call them and say: ‘I was attacked?’ ”

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Martinez said that although officers want to help, language barriers and the victims’ distrust of law enforcement pose problems.

“We don’t have enough bilinguals to let them know that their (immigration) status is unimportant, that we see them as victims,” he said, adding that if vending becomes legalized, distrust of the police will be removed.

For now, the distrust has left vendors exposed to the violence on the streets. Most have either been victims or they know a vendor who has been assaulted.

Some recent examples:

* Agustin Cortes, a corn vendor in Florence, was kidnaped in July by three men who stabbed him with a screwdriver, robbed him and left him in his shorts in an alley about 10 miles from where he was abducted, deputies said.

* A flower vendor was shot in the chest and critically wounded Aug. 21 on the corner of Olive Street and 111th Place, police said.

* A vendor was shot in the leg three times in mid-July on the corner of 118th and San Pedro streets.

* Felipe Munoz, an ice cream vendor in Florence, was held up in April by a 14-year-old who pointed a gun to his head and demanded his money, deputies said. Munoz screamed at the youth, holding the lids of his ice cream cart as shields. The teen-ager dropped the gun and fled.

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Detectives say Latino and black gang members are known to prey on street vendors. But sheriff’s gang Detective Carlos Ponce said the assaults are “not racially motivated. They just prey on the weak.”

In South-Central Los Angeles, where poverty and unemployment are among the highest in the county, the weak, among others, happen to be vendors trying to eke out a living on the streets, Ponce said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a case of the poor attacking the poor,” said Gardea of the Street Vendors Assn. “They are mugged and attacked by people who are also living in poverty.”

What is needed, Gardea said, is a better relationship between law enforcement officials and vendors.

“Much like Neighborhood Watch, where they get neighbors to sit down and explain how to protect their homes,” he said, “the police could come to the street vendors and say: ‘This is what you can do to protect your materials, to protect your body.’ ”


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