News Column

Violent Robberies Spread Fear for Hispanic Families

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Pedro Lopez Ruiz was unloading a chicken dinner from his car when he spotted the unfamiliar black Chevrolet Blazer pull onto Wildflower Lane.

His 4-year-old daughter behind him, he watched the SUV drive the length of his short cul-de-sac lined with a few mobile homes. The Blazer turned around and crept back toward Ruiz.

Two men in hooded sweatshirts stepped out, one pointing a gun. Ruiz's daughter hid behind him, then ran into their mobile home.

The men wanted money.

He was broke, Ruiz told them, and the men drove off after a few terrifying seconds.

In four cases on the weekend before Thanksgiving, armed robbers appeared to have targeted Hispanics and migrant workers living in the countryside near Clinton. In one robbery, intruders stormed into a mobile home and fired into a bedroom, critically wounding a 4-year-old boy.

Sampson County sheriff's deputies don't know whether the four crimes are related, but they're all too familiar with the violence. Hispanics, many of whom are migrant field workers, are seen as easy targets in brazen attacks and burglaries. Criminals may believe migrants carry large sums of cash. Or maybe they know that few of these cases ever get solved or even reported to law enforcement.

But it's clear that many farm-working Hispanics across the Cape Fear region are increasingly living in fear. Few families answer the door after dark in neighborhoods robbers have targeted. Farmers who employ documented migrant workers and house them in labor camps have hired off-duty lawmen to patrol, especially around payday.

And some Hispanic families have resorted to taking turns keeping an overnight watch outside their homes.

More than a week after the robbers in the black SUV pointed a gun at him, Ruiz was pacing his cul-de-sac, which is off U.S. 701 north of Clinton. He does this a lot now, he said, walking the block to watch for unfamiliar cars or people

"I'm scared," he said.

Violent attacks

The night before Ruiz's confrontation, robbers had driven down a dirt path about five miles to the north.

The path leads to a mobile home park on Plantation Lane, filled mostly with migrant workers.

Two families were asleep in the home where the robbers -- no one knows how many for sure -- burst through the front door around 10:20 p.m. They tried to get into a bedroom, then fired a shot through the door that hit the 4-year-old boy in the head.

Sheriff's deputies say the robbers left with nothing, and the boy remains on life support in critical but stable condition.

Last week, most of the neighbors on Plantation Lane didn't answer their doors after nightfall, even though there were lights on inside.

"We're scared," said Lisa Chavez Lopez in Spanish as she peeked out a window. "I wouldn't open the door if I don't know you."

That Nov. 16 robbery was the third this year in their mobile home park, Lopez said.

"I don't understand," she said, "because we don't have money, nothing to rob."

Lopez and her husband, Enrique Vasquez Vera, can see the home where the boy was shot from their front yard. Vera said he's been told the boy can move one foot and his hands slightly, and he could open one eye.

"It entered here," Vera said of the bullet, pointing to his forehead, "and exited here," the back of his head. Standing on their porch strung with Christmas lights, Lopez and Vera held their 11-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

Vera said if robbers ever came to their home, he'd tell them: "Llevar todo, no importa," or "Take it all. It doesn't matter."

Their son hasn't slept much since that night. He fears the attackers could come for him.

"Every sound I hear," the boy said, "I think it's something bad."

Migrants targeted

Capt. Eric Pope of the Sampson County Sheriff's Office said he could not provide statistics on attacks and home invasions targeting Hispanics because his agency is upgrading its computer systems. But he acknowledged that migrant workers have long been a target for criminals because of a perception that they rarely use banks.

Crimes against the workers ebb and flow with the growing season but have been a pervasive problem in Sampson and surrounding counties for decades.

In 2004, a group of Honduran gang members were arrested for breaking into Hispanics' homes in Sampson and nearby counties. In May 2011, nine Hispanics in Lumberton were robbed, assaulted and shot at during three home invasions that police believed to be related.

Bladen and Robeson counties have recent reports of similar crimes.

In August, a Bladen County blueberry farmer said one of his workers discovered his home was cleared out shortly after he had left for the fields around 6:30 a.m.

"They'd already wiped him out, taken everything," said the farmer, Dale Smith. "The cash, all their electronic devices, anything they could turn to cash."

Even their clothes were gone, Smith said.

The Bladen County Sheriff's Office investigated the break-in but never found the thieves.

It was obvious, Smith said, that the robbers had been watching the workers.

"Must've been waiting in the woods there," he said.

Smith employs a few hundred migrant workers at his Ammon blueberry farm. His crews have reported a couple of robberies this year, and he has hired off-duty deputies during payroll time.

Smith said the Sheriff's Office has increased patrols around the farm, and he believes deputies are doing all they can with limited resources. But he does not believe the situation has improved for Hispanics.

Other sheriff's offices in surrounding counties said the recent robberies or home invasions do not show a clear pattern of one ethnic group being targeted. But Pope said crimes against Hispanics are certainly underreported because many of the victims are afraid to talk to lawmen. They may be in America illegally, or they may be from a country where police can't be trusted.

"In some countries, there's not much that separates the police from the criminal element except the badge," Pope said.

Sleepless nights

Lasaro Ramirez wakes up four or five times a night to make sure his wife and three children are safe. Their modest white home off N.C. 24, just west of Clinton, is next to a sweet potato field. That's where robbers have repeatedly struck a migrant camp, including twice on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

"I've lived here 10 years and I've never been scared," Ramirez said in broken English. "And right now, this year, yeah, I'm scared."

He does not trust law officers to respond quickly to emergency calls by Spanish speakers. He tells his wife that if anything bad happens, call his brother, who has an American wife, and tell them to call 911.

The nearby migrant camp was last robbed Nov. 16, the same night the 4-year-old boy was shot. Six workers living at the dormitory-style camp were robbed by two or three gunmen, who carried away a 50-inch high-definition television.

It was the third straight Friday night the camp had been robbed. And the next evening, a man riding his bike near the camp was robbed of $40 by someone with a gun in a Chevrolet SUV, according to 911 and police records.

The camp, for Wayne Bailey Produce Co., is a simple cream-colored building with a red roof and enough room to house 50 workers. It's accessible only by a long gravel driveway that weaves between an old home and the produce facility, past large sweet potato bins and the Ramirez home.

Roger Lane, the farm's manager, had stacked wooden crates full of potatoes across the path to keep cars out. It didn't work. Lane thinks the robbers parked nearby and walked through the fields to get to the building where the workers slept.

Some of the workers started sleeping in their cars to keep their belongings locked up. Some would stand watch during the day, others at night. Lane pays them by direct deposit so they don't carry around much cash.

In previous break-ins, about $100 was reported stolen, Lane said.

"There's no big amount of money, so whoever is doing this is taking a big risk to get $20 to $100," he said.

The labor camp was deserted last week. The workers have completed their contracts picking and processing sweet potatoes and squash, and they left the day before Thanksgiving on a chartered bus bound for Mexico. The six robbery victims and any witnesses to the crime are now back in Mexico.

Myriam Hudson, executive director of the N.C. Farmworkers Project, said reports like these come every year, every season.

The project aims to improve the living condition of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 farm workers in Johnston, Sampson, Duplin and Harnett counties.

"It's very frequent at the end of the season for these robberies to start happening," Hudson said. "The robbers already know the farm workers are ready to go. That's why they are an easy target for them."

And it often makes the crimes difficult to prosecute.

Even if lawmen make an arrest, it's tough to find the victims or witnesses and persuade them to return for a trial.

Ken White is director of the N.C Growers Association, which brings about 7,000 H2A guest workers a year to North Carolina. His workers are warned about the danger of robberies and keeping cash on hand as soon as they arrive in Vass on a bus from Mexico.

The Growers Association has noted an increase in criminals targeting migrants within the past five or six years.

"(Thieves) could get a lot more money doing that as opposed to going to a convenience store and trying to stick up a convenience store," White said. "It got to be known that it was an easy score."

The association encourages its workers to get bank accounts.

But many migrants can't because they are undocumented, and those who are legal can find the process difficult. Some growers, typically the bigger employers, provide direct deposit or debit cards.

White says providing those options and educating more workers could improve the situation.

Neither White nor Hudson, of the N.C. Farmworkers Project, thinks law enforcement does enough to protect migrant workers. Hudson said patrols should be stepped up, especially near the end of the season.

"Farm workers -- usually, people don't really care about them," she said. "I'm not saying all the people, but a majority."

Pope said Sampson County deputies have stepped up patrols and are working overtime to develop leads. But each of the five deputies who patrol the rural county have about 192 square miles to cover, and farm camps are scattered.

Sampson County has three deputies who speak Spanish and a contract for interpreters. Bilingual deputies are hard to keep, Pope said, because they're often recruited by larger agencies.

As of last week, deputies had no leads or suspects in the four cases from the weekend before Thanksgiving. With the crops harvested and most migrants gone, the robberies are likely to slow down, at least until next year.

But Hispanic families who remain here through the winter still live in fear that they could lose everything in an instant.

"We want justice," said Lopez, the woman who is a neighbor to the shot 4-year-old. "Justice, and no more robberies."

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