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‘Amigo Checking’: Wave of Muggings Targets Immigrant Workers

El Mensajero, News Report, Erika Cebreros, Translated by Elena Shore Posted: Mar 22, 2007

Traducción al español

OAKLAND – It was a day like any other. Juan García, 29, was walking with his cousin when they were intercepted by a young man on a bicycle. The man stabbed Juan so he could rob him.

Juan’s cousin didn’t know how to react. He was paralyzed with fear and was late calling an ambulance. When they arrived to help him, Juan had already bled out. His funeral took place Feb. 25 in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, Calif. Juan, a native of Guatemala, had only been in the United States for one year.

Emilia Otero, founder and director of a day laborer center in Oakland, says the attack on Juan, or “Juanito” as she called him, is not an isolated incident or a new phenomemon. “Almost two or three times a week [the workers] come to me with reports that they were beaten or had their wallets or identification stolen,” she says.

Otero, an immigrant from Tijuana, Mexico, explains that about two years ago there was “a wave of muggings, robbery, assaults and killings,” against Guatemalan workers.

According to Otero, Guatemalans make up nearly 78 percent of the workers at the day laborer center, where each week an average of 400 people gather in the hopes that someone will offer them work.

Beyond “Amigo Checking”

The Oakland police released a report on Feb. 13 that described a criminal trend identified in 2006 that is known by its slang term, “amigo checking.” The report found that many immigrants were being attacked—mostly by young African-Americans—because they don’t have bank accounts and carry cash with them.

But beyond the money the workers carry in their pockets, Emilia Otero points to other reasons workers from Guatemala, in particular, have become an easy target for many criminals.

Unlike other laborers, like those from Mexico, who “know the system better,” and know to be more alert about their surroundings, Guatemalans tend to be “more shy and have a smaller physical stature,” she says. Otero identifies language as another important factor. “They don’t speak English or Spanish. I think when they walk in a group and people hear them talking a different language, they are identified.”

Michel Poirier, spokesperson for the Oakland police, said in a telephone interview that the day laborers are not being attacked simply because they are Hispanic workers or because they pertain to a certain group, but because they have the characteristics of any other victim in “the mind of the criminals.”

As in the case of an old woman walking down the street, the official said that it is more likely for workers to be attacked when they are walking alone and on deserted roads. Poirier added that criminals suspect that often this type of victim doesn’t have anyone looking out for them.

Who is Attacking Them?

According to Otero, some African-Americans have attacked the workers, but they aren’t the only ones. She asserts that according to reports by her organization, three groups are believed to be comitting the crimes against immigrant workers.

“One is African-Americans, another is African-Americans and Latinos, and another group is only Latinos, and when I say Latinos, I mean gang members,” she adds. When asked which group is dominant, Otero says that “the three (groups) are the same.” The alleged killer of Juan García was Latino, according to Otero.

The program director says that previously the workers “didn’t dare to report the muggings and beatings.” However, since June of 2006, when the violence against the workers increased, some of them lost their fear and began to come forward about their cases.

She says that when the crime was not reported, the police couldn’t do much about it. A considerable number of workers are afraid to report the abuses committed against them, or that they have witnessed, since the majority lack legal immigration status in the country and are afraid of being arrested by immigration authorities.

“It’s not so much the fear of reporting it or of the police, it’s the fear of being deported. That is everyone’s fear,” she stresses.

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