Hispanic/Latinx residents make up about 14 percent of Durham’s population yet account for 41 percent of the Bull City’s robbery victims so far this year.
The robberies reached a flashpoint last month when Durham police said that 18 Latinx residents were targeted in 10 armed robberies over nine days.
Longtime community organizer Ivan Almonte came to the aid of one robbery victim who was working at an apartment complex near North Roxboro Road.
“It was around noon,” Almonte says. “It was really bad. He was robbed at gunpoint while he was doing some work at the apartments on a ladder.”
Almonte says the robberies have traumatized Latinx communities.
“When I talk to people in the communities, they’re mad, they’re angry, and sad,” he says. “They wonder why you take away the little money we have? They say, ‘Why are you taking from us? We have so little?’”
What may be worse than the robberies has been the police response, Almonte says.
The community organizer says the victim he helped had been robbed of his cell phone, so he called the police on his behalf.
“They never called me back,” Almonte says. “The police say they’re trying to help the community, but the victims feel like they don’t really care about them.”
Almonte says there were more robberies last month than the 10 reported to the police, but people are afraid to call 911, and language barriers make it difficult to communicate.
Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael, however, told the INDY that investigators are concerned with what appears to be an uptick in the targeting of Hispanic/Latinx residents, adding that the police department has reached out to the communities where the robberies have taken place.
“Information has been sent to the media,” Michael says, “including the Spanish-speaking media.”
Some Latinx activists contacted by the INDY declined to comment about the crimes because of past evidence indicating the perpetrators were Black.
“It’s a tricky issue,” says a spokeswoman with a Triangle-based Latinx organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We have to be very mindful of the perception and being viewed as anti-Black.”
Alexandra Valladares, who was the first Latina elected to the Durham school board, described an “emerging pattern” in the city, where economic conditions have tethered working-class Black and Latinx residents to the same low-income communities.
Valladares points to small things that have bred crime like apartment buildings without surveillance cameras, security guards, and adequate lighting.
“As long as communities are made vulnerable,” she says, “they’ll continue to be targeted.”
Valladares remembers one particular robbery in a Durham apartment parking lot, where a Latinx man was robbed while on his way to a nearby grocery store.
“A thin Black kid held a gun to his head and tried to shoot him twice,” she says. “When the gun didn’t work, he assaulted him with the back of the gun and broke his jaw, then he went inside and robbed his wife.”
The trauma the woman endured, Valladares says, triggers a visceral reaction whenever she encounters someone in public who resembles the perpetrator. It also prompted a dramatic change in the couple’s lifestyle. They live in fear of what the dark might bring.
“As soon as the sun goes down, they are not going out,” she says. “That’s not a solution. It’s a coping mechanism to avoid the same predicament.”
Some crimes against the Latinx community have come from within.
In January 2019, police sped to a shooting on House Avenue near the Lakewood Shopping Center, where officers found the bodies of Murilio Zurito Domingo, 24, and Bertin Vasquez Mendoza, 26, dead in the street.
Police charged Jose Manuel Vargas-Regino, 20, with two counts of murder and Jonathan Cabrera, 18, with two counts of accessory after the fact.
“We have Brown boys with guns,” Valladares says. “It’s not just Black youth.”
Valladares says the challenges faced by Black and Brown men correlate with Durham public school suspension rates among students of color.
“We are not seeing the complexity of this thing,” she says. “It’s not just about race. That’s too simplistic.”
Edgar Vergara, pastor of Iglesia La Semilla, a Hispanic/Latinx faith community, says no one in the community has reached out to him about the robberies, but he has spoken with activists who have made it a point to get the word out in the community.
“What I’m hearing are activists asking people to be vigilant, to be aware and to take precautions,” Vergara says. “If you are a victim, don’t remain quiet. Notify the authorities.”
The targeting of Latinx residents is not a new story in the city. During the late 1990s, with neighborhoods reeling from the crack cocaine epidemic, Durham police reported a spike in armed robberies with young Black men targeting Latinx residents.
Police and Latinx advocates at the time explained that immigrants were “unbanked”—or carrying large amounts of cash rather than depositing money at financial institutions. The problem was compounded by the community being fearful of notifying the police after a crime, owing to their immigration status.
The Hispanic/Latinx population in Durham also grew in the late 1990s, creating unease between working-class African Americans and their new neighbors who were competing for their living spaces and jobs.
Today, things have improved somewhat thanks to a progressive, multicultural brand of leadership. But the unease is now exacerbated by an ongoing housing crisis further aggravated by gentrification and complicated by the pandemic, which has coincided with an overall rise in gun-related crime.
In November, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis hosted a press conference to address gun violence as the city closed in on more than 800 shootings for 2020.
Schewel said the “very tough few months of gun violence” was part of a national trend exacerbated by the pandemic. The city was already challenged by a proliferation of illegal guns.
But the pandemic, he said, was now fueling “out-of-control gun sales,” while further igniting the always-volatile illegal drug trade and gang activity.
It also is natural to wonder if the March robberies were fueled by a similar ethnic hatred that has targeted Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country.
“I don’t want to believe that,” Vergara, the pastor, says. “I want to believe that we’re in a better place hopefully, with the new [Biden] administration. But we’ve seen what our Asian-American/Pacific Islander brothers and sisters are experiencing. I want to say no, but it wouldn’t be surprising.”
Vergara thinks the armed robberies last month were more crimes of opportunity.
“My general sense is that, especially with the economy, a lot of Hispanic/Latinx residents are essential workers and are being paid in cash and targeted on certain days,” he says.
Meanwhile, Valladares would like to see a bundle of solutions hammered out by all of the factions of the city to address the problem. As far as she’s concerned, issues of equity and access to community resources for young people are key.
“We have to make sure we reach Black and Brown youth and design and create opportunities for them,” she says. “We have to make sure every child has an opportunity to see themselves reflected in those opportunities.”
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
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