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Attacks on Mexican immigrants often go unreported

One moment, Cerelino Velasquez was riding his bike on South Eighth Street near Christian, enjoying an April night as he pedaled home from his job at a nearby pizza shop about 10.

One moment, Cerelino Velasquez was riding his bike on South Eighth Street near Christian, enjoying an April night as he pedaled home from his job at a nearby pizza shop about 10.

Suddenly, a baseball bat whipped at him from the darkness. The blow fractured his right forearm, cracked a rib, and sent the 5-foot, 135-pound Mexican immigrant crashing to the pavement. Three men pummeled and robbed him, leaving the bike but making off with his pay, more than $200.

In a parting shot, they grabbed his arms and legs, tossed him into the air, and ran before he hit the ground.

His attackers never spoke, Velasquez, 37, recalled in a recent interview. The assault lasted only a minute, but it produced injuries requiring $18,295 worth of treatment at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Undocumented Mexican workers - typically paid in cash, often dependent on bikes because they can't get driver's licenses - are easy prey. And their fears of presenting themselves to police, coupled with their limited fluency in English, mean they generally do not report the crimes.

But the robbery and beating of Velasquez was reported, shedding light on a persistent but hidden problem. Not only were police informed, but so were Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia and the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia.

Stories of such assaults are familiar in Mexican enclaves across the region - in Camden, Bridgeton, and other South Jersey communities frequented by seasonal farmworkers, in Latino neighborhoods in Norristown, and in Kennett Square in Chester County.

"Is it an everyday occurrence? No. But we do have clients telling us about" robberies, said Juan Guerra, executive director of ACLAMO: Accion Communal Latinoamericana de Montgomery County, a Norristown social-services agency.

"It's been a constant. . . . There is always that vulnerability," said Nelson Carrasquillo, director of CATA (El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas), a regional farmworker-advocacy group with offices in Glassboro and Kennett Square.

The situation in exurbia differs from the city, he said. Farmworkers often are paid with checks that can be cashed only at the farmer's bank. And they tend to travel in company-organized van pools instead of on bikes.

"But once they get out of that van and go to their houses, they are on their own," Carrasquillo said. So CATA advises them to be extra vigilant and travel together, finding safety in numbers.

The racial and ethnic profiles of the robbers and the victims "depend on the communities where the workers are living," he said. An incident a month ago in Bridgeton was African American-on-Mexican, but "sometimes it is Puerto Rican-on-Mexican and even Mexican-on-Mexican."

At Mexibike, a bicycle shop on South Ninth Street near Washington Avenue, patron Calixto Sandoval, 24, said he rides to his job as a cook at a Center City hotel, but takes precautions.

Like other restaurant workers whose shifts end in the wee hours, he often heads to Broad Street to ride south on a well-illuminated road rather than take the straight shot south on 19th Street through neighborhoods he finds intimidating.

Attacks on Mexican workers have "always been a problem. [But] in the summer, more people are hanging out, and maybe that makes it worse," said Martin Herrera, owner of Taqueria Veracruzana, a popular restaurant in the increasingly Latino neighborhood south of Washington Avenue near the Italian Market.

From 2004 to 2007, when Police Capt. Joseph Zaffino led the Fourth District in South Philadelphia, he worked hard to understand the local Mexican community, he said.

"I can tell you, they wouldn't make eye contact with police when I first met them," said Zaffino, who attended christenings and other important community gatherings to build trust.

When a group of robbers began preying on immigrants on Seventh Street between Washington Avenue and Morris Street, he added post-midnight patrols and instructed officers coming to work, or returning to the station from assignments, to drive down Seventh Street to increase surveillance and police presence there.

He coordinated the patrols with Michael Weaver, who was captain of the adjacent Third District then.

"Most Mexicans were coming home late, riding bikes or walking home from restaurants. Everyone knew when they were paid," said Zaffino, now captain of the Seventh District in the Northeast.

Karina Calva, community outreach coordinator at the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia for the last three years, said one of the first meetings she attended involved the Police Department and the Mexican worker-advocacy group Juntos, discussing strategies to minimize immigrant victimization.

Besides carrying cash on paydays, undocumented immigrants lack the identity papers necessary for bank accounts. So they store money at home, making their houses vulnerable to burglaries, too.

Trying to change that, Calva said, the consulate issues "matricula consular" to Mexicans living abroad.

The ID cards, which give the holder's birthplace and U.S. address, cost about $30 and are valid for five years. They are issued regardless of immigration status, but they do not confer any legal right to be in the United States. They do, however, give the holder the ability to identify himself.

Several local banks accept the matricula to open an account, Calva said.

Velasquez's employer, William Scotto, owner of La Pizzeria, worries that attacks on immigrants could lead to worse violence. He has heard chatter among some Mexican League soccer team members who want to defend themselves "with their own little posses."

He took his concerns to the Mexican Consulate, "to tell them it was going to turn into a gang war," said Scotto, who met with Calva.

She said she took his concern seriously but had no reason to believe the problem was more acute now than usual.

Milton Valdovinos, an organizer of the 18-team league, said he had not heard of threats to form posses.

Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, said he had no statistical information to suggest attacks on immigrants were happening more frequently. But when upticks do occur, he said, the department works with social-service agencies to "harden the targets" by raising awareness.

As for Velasquez, he needs physical therapy to regain feeling in his fingers. Victim/Witness Services is coordinating his application for state coverage of his medical bills.

His wife, who lives in Mexico with their three children under 16, is counting on him to send more money home.

So when he heals enough, he said, he will return to work - on the bike currently chained outside his door.