The first time he was jumped, four years ago, Pedro Reyes had been collecting cans and bottles to cash in at the recycling center. His attackers hit him until his eye filled with blood, then made off with $10 and his afternoon's recycling. He couldn't see for weeks. But he didn't call the police.
He was jumped again two years later, while walking to a street corner in Oakland's Fruitvale district to wait for work. His attackers pulled up in a car. "Money, amigo?" they demanded. "No money," Reyes said. He actually had $20, but he was saving that to send to his four young children in El Salvador. A man in the passenger seat fired a gun before driving away. The bullet grazed Reyes' shirt. After that, he couldn't eat or sleep for a week. He fell into a depression that still hasn't lifted.
Reyes, 51, didn't call police that time, either. He was here illegally, and he feared he'd get deported. (Because of that fear, the Express agreed to use Reyes' paternal last name to conceal his identity.)
The frequent victimization of Central American and Mexican immigrants like Reyes has authorities, advocates, and residents of Oakland's heavily Latino Fruitvale district deeply concerned. According to the Oakland Police Department's web site, in the past three months Fruitvale residents reported 112 thefts, 73 robberies, and 84 aggravated assaults. Most believe the real numbers are actually much higher.
Day laborers like Reyes are particularly popular targets for assault, as are the vendors of popsicles and precut fruit who grace many of Fruitvale's busiest street corners. Often sharing overcrowded apartments, and with no access to bank accounts, they frequently carry their cash with them. Once a crime happens, fear and language barriers usually keep them from contacting the police.
Although Oakland's sanctuary ordinance means police and other agencies won't turn over undocumented immigrants to the federal government, many, like Reyes, aren't taking any chances.
"The people come here with fear," said Maria Sanchez, a program manager with the Unity Council, a Fruitvale-based advocacy group. "Our community is afraid."
In late July, a coalition of organizations that serve Fruitvale's immigrant community sent a letter to Mayor Ron Dellums and Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker, requesting the creation of a neighborhood police substation permanently staffed by a bilingual officer.
"We know there is an underreporting of crime due to several factors," the letter read. "'911' system is not user friendly for multilingual communities; lack of multilingual officers; and a general lack of trust (justifiable or not) due to the threat of deportation."
Advocates and residents say such underreporting misleads officials about the scope of the crime problem in the Fruitvale community. Captain Rick Orozco, who overseas Oakland police area 2, which includes Fruitvale, calls it a big issue. "If it's not being reported, we don't see it," he said. "We base a lot of our patrol deployment on statistics. If it's not written down, then it didn't happen."
While it's difficult to gauge just how many people might not be reporting crimes, nearly all the advocates and residents interviewed for this story knew of several examples. Joseph Martinez, owner of the Golden Hours liquor store on the bustling corner of Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard, said he has attended to many immigrants who come in bruised and bleeding after being robbed. "We help them get medical attention and try to get them to seek help from the police," he said. "They just shrug their shoulders."
Jesse Newmark, a staff attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services organization that signed onto the letter, said many clients are reluctant to report crimes against them, even when attorneys advise them to do so. They hesitate to report not just robberies, but illegal evictions and domestic violence.
Gilda Gonzales, the Unity Council's CEO, said she believes having a bilingual officer stationed in the community would help improve crime reporting there, by breaking down barriers of language and distrust. Oakland's Chinatown has a similar setup, which she says has proven successful.
Even the new Mexican consul general, based in San Francisco, has added his voice to the chorus. "He is very, very, very deeply concerned about the violence," said his spokesman, Agustín Pradillo.
Spokesmen for the mayor's office and police department say they are receptive to the substation proposal, or something like it. "It would be great for the community," Orozco said. But he and others aren't sure how to pay for it, given a possible $50 million budget deficit the city is facing this year. Paul Rose, the mayor's spokesman, said the mayor is working with the police department "to ensure that we're on the same page in every part of our city as far as our crime reporting and crime fighting."
Orozco said the police are having some success building trust with residents of the community. But even those who are here legally say calling the police can be more hassle than it's worth if there's no one who speaks Spanish on the other end of the line.
Maria Cortez, a 27-year-old working with AmeriCorps, said her brother-in-law refused to file a police report after his car was stolen. "For what?" he said, according to his sister. "They don't speak Spanish." Ana Diaz, 52, said she'll often hang up the phone after calling 9-1-1 if no one on the other end understands her.
Some residents, Diaz included, have considered taking matters into their own hands. After hearing about groups of assailants walking up to her neighbors and muttering: "Give me your money or I'll kill you," she and her husband decided to intervene. One afternoon, they staked out a Walgreens parking lot where such attacks were known to occur. Her husband ended up running after a group of young men, unarmed, while Diaz tried to get through to police.
Reyes himself finally spoke to authorities after he was robbed for the third time, last November. He'd gone out for a quesadilla with a friend when three men drove up. Two of them got out of their car and proceeded to beat him with a gun until his shoulder bone protruded from his skin. He didn't call the police himself that time; someone else did. The authorities showed up with an ambulance.
"I wouldn't wish that upon anybody," Reyes said the other evening as he sat in a plaza near the Fruitvale BART station. His hands were calloused and specked with dirt after the day's work. He clasped and unclasped them as he spoke.
A young man approached, dragging a black suitcase carrying all of his belongings. He asked Reyes for directions to take public transportation to San Mateo. "Pobrecito," Reyes said, as the young man walked away. He could tell the poor guy was looking for work — in scarce supply these days. Reyes paused a moment, then called after him in Spanish. "Tenga cuidado," he said. Be careful.