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Hispanic Leaders Say Police Must Do More

Marcelo Cornicello, whose deli on Midlothian Turnpike is an unofficial gathering place for Hispanic community leaders, says more police effort is needed to combat Hispanics' fear after two recent shootings.

After the killings of two Latino immigrants in late December, some Hispanic Richmonders are warning that unless changes take place to make the city's Latinos feel safe, fear may drive some people to take the law into their own hands.

"That's what my concern is — that the gangs don't come over here to try to protect the people in the wrong way," says Marcelo Cornicello, founder of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Virginia.

Police say there's no gang activity in Richmond that they're aware of. But Latino gangs exist in Northern Virginia, says Elsa Miller, president of the Hispanic chamber. "We don't want for them to find out their compatriotas are being killed here, and they come to take revenge," she says.

William Perlara, a 21-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, was shot and killed Dec. 28 outside the Rio Lindo restaurant on Broad Rock Boulevard while he was in a car with his brother and father. His body was sent home last week, Miller says, and she is currently soliciting donations to defray the debt Perlara incurred by paying an intermediary $4,000 for a visa and entrance into the United States.

Roberto Esteban Martinez, a 32-year-old immigrant from Mexico, was shot to death Dec. 24 in a South Richmond apartment. An apparent bounty hunter was charged with second-degree murder. The police believe he may have mistaken Martinez for another man.

Police say it's coincidence that the two killings occurred so close together. But the incidents have intensified the fear and mistrust of the police many Hispanics feel, chamber leaders say. Now they are demanding changes.

"You have to have increased police presence," Cornicello says. "Not only that, you need to have somebody to relate to, somebody to communicate with."

Jennifer Reilly, a spokeswoman for Richmond Police, says the department is doing what it can to improve communication: airing Spanish-language Crimestopper spots and the "Police Beat" show on TV; training volunteers from Hispanic communities to help police as "neighborhood assistance officers"; and offering free Spanish classes for police officers — which are filled to capacity, she says.

Still, Cornicello points out, many Hispanics are afraid to call the police to report incidents because officers ask callers for their names and, sometimes, their immigration status. Reilly says officers are not required to call Immigration and Naturalization Services if they suspect someone may be an illegal alien. "Regardless of their status, you always want them to call the police," she adds.

— Melissa Scott

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