With a Little Help From Neighbors

Times Staff Writer

Freddy and Balmori Amaya stepped uneasily out of the armory room of the Tifton Police Department. Wrapped around their waists were bulky duty belts that forced them to hold their arms out from their torsos and walk, for the first time, like cops.

As the brothers shuffled along a corridor lined with sepia photos of the city’s white police chiefs, Balmori’s “I {heart} El Salvador” key chain swayed from his back pocket. Tifton’s newest Latino recruits were finally on the payroll.

“This is like the grand prize,” Freddy said as he handled his .40-caliber Glock for the first time in May, a day before he started at the police academy. “It’s like a visual, showing me I’m moving forward.”

For the Amayas, who were born in Tifton to Salvadoran immigrants and grew up in a trailer park, joining the police force in this small south Georgia city is a source of pride. They were among the first Latinos to graduate from the local high school, and they are determined to show that immigrants here can move beyond the backbreaking world of farm labor.


But the police hired Freddy, 22, and Balmori, 21, to solve a problem. Over the last decade, Latinos have come to Tifton in increasing numbers to do the farm work once handled by blacks and poor whites. Because few officers speak Spanish, the police have struggled to communicate with -- and earn the trust of -- the city’s new arrivals.

Across the country, departments are scrambling to find Latino recruits. In San Jose, police distribute Spanish fliers in laundromats; in Durham, N.C., they hold job fairs at a Catholic church. Recruiters for Jefferson County, Ala., run TV advertisements in heavily Latino cities like Miami and Houston.

In Tifton, the search did not begin in earnest until illegal immigrants became the victims of what is believed to be the most savage crime in town history.

One night last September, robbers wielding claw hammers and aluminum baseball bats attacked a dozen Mexican immigrants in four trailer parks in and around Tifton. They killed six men, injured four more, and raped and sodomized a woman.


The crime scenes were gruesome.

At the Town and Country Mobile Home Park, where two of the dead men were found, police Det. Ricky L. Day was collecting evidence when he heard the trailer park gradually fill with the sounds of electric drills, hammers and saws. The neighbors were reinforcing their windows and bolting their doors. Later, when Day and a translator came calling, the residents stood on their front steps with their arms folded. They were too afraid of being deported, Day said, to invite police in.

Eventually, with the help of Latino activists, some residents began to talk. They told authorities they had previously reported suspicions when a group of African Americans drove around the area in the days before the slayings.

Within a week, three black suspects were arrested; two more were picked up before the end of the year. Each was charged with 34 counts including murder, aggravated assault and armed robbery.


Tift County’s district attorney is waiting for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to finish its analysis of crime scene evidence before setting a trial date.

The brutality of the crimes led some to speculate they were racially motivated: All of the suspects were black, and the Latino influx in Tifton had generated tension between the two groups. But the bureau’s investigation determined they were not hate crimes. The immigrants were targeted, officials said, because they stored wads of cash in their work boots.

Like many small Southern cities, Tifton -- an agricultural community with a quiet downtown -- remains largely segregated. Most white residents live in manicured ranch-style homes on the north side of town, most blacks in dilapidated turn-of-the-century bungalows and double-wide trailers on the south side.

The approximately 1,200 Latinos in Tifton -- up from 220 in the 1980 census -- are mostly scattered in several run-down trailer parks on the outskirts of town.


Although paths sometimes cross at the local Wal-Mart, most Tifton residents know little about the lives of their immigrant neighbors. Many were surprised to learn that Latinos had been targeted in at least 20 home robberies in and near Tifton in the three months before the killings.

After the slayings, Mayor Paul O. Johnson ordered the American flag outside City Hall to be lowered to half-staff and a Mexican flag to fly below it on the same pole. When some residents complained to the local radio station, Johnson stood firm, insisting that the Mexican flag would fly for six days -- one for every Mexican immigrant who was killed.

In the days that followed, Police Chief James Smith resolved to do more to protect the immigrant community. He bolstered patrols in the trailer parks, distributed lists of Spanish phrases to his officers, and appealed to community leaders to help him recruit Latinos. Ideally, the recruits would be both bilingual and familiar to residents in the emerging Latino neighborhoods.

“They are good people, many of these illegal immigrants,” he said. “They’ve stayed in the shadows for years, not knowing whether they would be accepted or not. We want them to feel welcome here.”


In October, Smith found the Amaya brothers. Their story was a little different than most, in ways that made them ideal candidates.

Their father, Santos, left the political turmoil of El Salvador for Texas in 1977. Four years later, after returning to his homeland to marry, he and his wife, Maria, headed for the fertile plains of south Georgia. They had heard that Tifton was a “quiet place, religious,” with abundant agricultural work.

The Amayas are here legally, and their eight children are U.S. citizens. Freddy and Balmori were among the first Latinos to pass through the local school system. They made both black and white friends and learned to speak English. Growing up, they longed to become police officers. They watched “Cops” and “Miami Vice” on TV and weaved around their trailer park with plastic handcuffs and toy guns.

Both received two-year associate degrees in criminal justice after high school.


“It’s just something I always wanted to do,” said Freddy, who wrote an essay in fifth grade about wanting to be a cop. “I always wanted to be a role model.”

Over the years, their father left the fields and eventually became a landlord in the Town and Country trailer park. Today he owns 21 trailers. Many of them are rented to groups of men who have left their families in Mexico to work the American harvest.

Freddy and Balmori grew up in a homey, comfortable trailer. Maria grows banana plants outside, and the delicate spices of her Salvadoran cooking waft from the kitchen.

But the reminders of violence are only a few trailers away. Down a dirt road littered with pine cones and beer caps is the mildew-covered trailer where two of the Mexican workers were killed. Freddy Amaya passed it after receiving his gun at the academy. Its broken windows were covered with towels, and a padlock hung from a front door that did not close.


Arriving home, he was greeted by his sister Yanria, 5, who skipped to the door to show off a tortilla she had bitten into the shape of a star.

Carefully, Freddy placed his belt on a table layered with lace and plastic, and opened the box containing his gun.

His father got up from the sofa.

“You’ve got all the characteristics now to be a police officer,” he said in Spanish, nodding approvingly and leaning in to admire the gun.


Rodimiro Ramirez, 44, an undocumented peanut worker, stopped by to pick up his mail and heard the good news.

“Ah, the bosses of Tifton!” he teased.

But not everyone is convinced that the brothers, who are set to graduate from the academy on Friday, will make Tifton a safer place for Latinos.

On the other side of the dirt road from the Amayas’ trailer, Judy Castillo said that after the attacks, her family stopped going out for meals and visiting relatives in the evenings. She said that wouldn’t change just because of two rookie police officers.


“For me, it doesn’t make a difference,” said Castillo, 22, a Mexican native. “Police are police.”

That attitude worries Smith, the police chief, who said that the current national debate over immigration made it harder to win the trust of Tifton’s Latinos.

In April, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a bill requiring jailers to check the immigration status of anyone arrested for a felony or drunk driving. Local officers will be trained to start the deportation process for illegal immigrants they encounter during routine law enforcement. The legislation takes effect next July.

“They’re afraid that our No. 1 goal will be to deport them,” Smith said.


“Everyone wants to bring in all this other stuff, but that’s not our job.... We’re entrusted to keep everyone safe.”