PATCHOGUE, N.Y. (AP) — Reaction to the death of an Ecuadorean worker targeted by marauding teenagers on Long Island five years ago has led to an atmosphere of greater tolerance toward Hispanic immigrants, migrants and local activists said, making it easier for them to go to the authorities when they have been victims of crime.
Marcelo Lucero, 37, was stabbed to death in November 2008 after an encounter with seven teenagers at a train station in Patchogue. The youths, who were convicted of hate crimes and received jail sentences, told a judge they targeted Hispanics for kicks, confident that their victims wouldn't call police because they feared questions about their immigration status or that their complaints would be disregarded.
A U.S. Justice Department probe found that the Suffolk County Police Department didn't properly investigate hate crimes in which the victims were Hispanic, in part because they were not reported by a community fearful of cooperating with police. That has led to changes ranging from improved communication with the Hispanic community to a requirement that at least 10 percent of every new police class is made up of Spanish speakers.
In Associated Press interviews conducted in Spanish, immigrants on Long Island said they have seen changes for the better.
"Now, the people report to the police, with or without documents," said Cecilia Bonilla, 48, from El Salvador, as she cooked fried plantains and chicken at her restaurant a few feet from where Lucero was killed. "A lot has changed. I still hear that people are beaten, but not as much as before. Before it was worse."
A spokesman for the Suffolk County police said last week that better services have resulted in a reduction in crime and a better relationship with the community.
Recommendations from the Justice Department included making it easier for people to register complaints about the police by placing notices in libraries and other public places, better community outreach and improved communication to beat officers. The letter also cited some confusion over interpreting what a hate crime is, noting that minors are capable of committing them.
Two weeks after Lucero's death, Patchogue village officials started a series of bilingual public meetings in the library, between police and migrant workers, on how to ease the worries in the Hispanic community and improve relations.
Gilda Ramos, a Peruvian immigrant who works in the Patchogue library, said she began to see more Spanish-language flyers and police pamphlets. One pamphlet notes that Suffolk County police don't ask victims of crimes or witnesses about their immigration status and suggests robbery victims call the authorities.
"There is more confidence, and less of the fear," said Fabian Tacuri, a 42-year-old Ecuadorean painter from the same mountain county where Lucero was born. "If you have been the victim of a crime, you call 911. I would do it now, and others would, too. Before there was more distrust."
Lucero's brother, Joselo, said his loved one must not be forgotten.
"If we do not remember what happened, people forget," he said, "and unfortunately return sometimes to the same way of treating our people."