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With a Little Help From Neighbors

After six savage slayings of Latinos in a small city, police seek recruits who can lift culture barriers.

July 09, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

TIFTON, Ga. — Freddy and Balmori Amaya stepped uneasily out of the armory room of the Tifton Police Department. Wrapped around their waists were bulky duty belts that forced them to hold their arms out from their torsos and walk, for the first time, like cops.

As the brothers shuffled along a corridor lined with sepia photos of the city's white police chiefs, Balmori's "I {heart} El Salvador" key chain swayed from his back pocket. Tifton's newest Latino recruits were finally on the payroll.

"This is like the grand prize," Freddy said as he handled his .40-caliber Glock for the first time in May, a day before he started at the police academy. "It's like a visual, showing me I'm moving forward."

For the Amayas, who were born in Tifton to Salvadoran immigrants and grew up in a trailer park, joining the police force in this small south Georgia city is a source of pride. They were among the first Latinos to graduate from the local high school, and they are determined to show that immigrants here can move beyond the backbreaking world of farm labor.

But the police hired Freddy, 22, and Balmori, 21, to solve a problem. Over the last decade, Latinos have come to Tifton in increasing numbers to do the farm work once handled by blacks and poor whites. Because few officers speak Spanish, the police have struggled to communicate with -- and earn the trust of -- the city's new arrivals.

Across the country, departments are scrambling to find Latino recruits. In San Jose, police distribute Spanish fliers in laundromats; in Durham, N.C., they hold job fairs at a Catholic church. Recruiters for Jefferson County, Ala., run TV advertisements in heavily Latino cities like Miami and Houston.

In Tifton, the search did not begin in earnest until illegal immigrants became the victims of what is believed to be the most savage crime in town history.

One night last September, robbers wielding claw hammers and aluminum baseball bats attacked a dozen Mexican immigrants in four trailer parks in and around Tifton. They killed six men, injured four more, and raped and sodomized a woman.

The crime scenes were gruesome.

At the Town and Country Mobile Home Park, where two of the dead men were found, police Det. Ricky L. Day was collecting evidence when he heard the trailer park gradually fill with the sounds of electric drills, hammers and saws. The neighbors were reinforcing their windows and bolting their doors. Later, when Day and a translator came calling, the residents stood on their front steps with their arms folded. They were too afraid of being deported, Day said, to invite police in.

Eventually, with the help of Latino activists, some residents began to talk. They told authorities they had previously reported suspicions when a group of African Americans drove around the area in the days before the slayings.

Within a week, three black suspects were arrested; two more were picked up before the end of the year. Each was charged with 34 counts including murder, aggravated assault and armed robbery.

Tift County's district attorney is waiting for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to finish its analysis of crime scene evidence before setting a trial date.

The brutality of the crimes led some to speculate they were racially motivated: All of the suspects were black, and the Latino influx in Tifton had generated tension between the two groups. But the bureau's investigation determined they were not hate crimes. The immigrants were targeted, officials said, because they stored wads of cash in their work boots.

Like many small Southern cities, Tifton -- an agricultural community with a quiet downtown -- remains largely segregated. Most white residents live in manicured ranch-style homes on the north side of town, most blacks in dilapidated turn-of-the-century bungalows and double-wide trailers on the south side.

The approximately 1,200 Latinos in Tifton -- up from 220 in the 1980 census -- are mostly scattered in several run-down trailer parks on the outskirts of town.

Although paths sometimes cross at the local Wal-Mart, most Tifton residents know little about the lives of their immigrant neighbors. Many were surprised to learn that Latinos had been targeted in at least 20 home robberies in and near Tifton in the three months before the killings.

After the slayings, Mayor Paul O. Johnson ordered the American flag outside City Hall to be lowered to half-staff and a Mexican flag to fly below it on the same pole. When some residents complained to the local radio station, Johnson stood firm, insisting that the Mexican flag would fly for six days -- one for every Mexican immigrant who was killed.

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