Robbers Stalk Hispanic Immigrants, Seeing Ideal Prey

By Ernesto Londoño and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 26, 2007

By the time they set upon Victor Hernandez, knocking him to the pavement and kicking him furiously, the teenagers were deep into a weeks-long spree of robbing Hispanic immigrants.

They coined a term for the assaults, one that reflected the uniformity of the victims they selected: "amigo shopping." The teenagers recorded some of the attacks with a cellphone camera, saving one of the videos under the file name "amigo," a source familiar with the case said.

Hernandez, a dishwasher in Montgomery County, was an ideal target that August night in a type of robbery that law enforcement officials say has become alarmingly common in parts of the Washington region. Hispanic immigrants are being targeted, often in gratuitously violent attacks by non-Hispanics, because they are thought to carry cash rather than use banks and to be reluctant to report crimes to police, the officials said.

The attacks are occurring with such frequency that police in Prince William County have created a task force, and Montgomery police have assigned a specialized unit to tackle the problem. The crimes are having profound effects in the neighborhoods where they occur, causing some residents to alter their routines.

"Everyone leaves with someone else, in groups of two or three," said Woodbridge resident Joaquin Rodriquez, describing the change that has occurred since the fatal shooting of a Mexican immigrant during a robbery in September 2006.

Authorities say the teenage assailants in that case targeted Serafin "Pedro" Alvarez Negrete after agreeing to "get an amigo." They attacked Negrete, 32, as he walked home from a shopping center.

"Like alligators waiting for the gazelle to cross the river," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John B. Arledge said as one of the men was sentenced last week.

Police say recent immigrants, particularly laborers who return home on foot at night, are most vulnerable. Assailants have been known to lurk between shopping centers, even sometimes outside of cash-checking businesses on payday, police say.

Policing experts expressed concern that attacks on immigrants, already believed to be under-reported, might be reported less and less as local police agencies become increasingly involved in enforcing immigration policy.

"The reason that this issue is becoming so acute is the fear that people who are here illegally will stop reporting crime or will be afraid to serve as witnesses," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank in the District. "That only puts that population at greater risk for greater harm."

A suspect in one such robbery recently told police in Prince William that he had robbed several other Hispanics in the same area over several months, said 1st Sgt. Daniel Hess, commander of the county department's street crimes unit. He said police then searched department files but found no record of the robberies, suggesting they had not been reported.

"We've had people severely injured for less than a hundred dollars in their pocket," Hess said. "It's nonsensical. No one should have to worry about, 'If I walk to the convenient store tonight, I might be jumped by a group of thugs and killed for having to go down and buy a half-gallon of milk.' "

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