Investigators: Hispanics Target in Georgia Slayings

Pedro Bemol stayed awake most of the night, swapping lookout shifts in the dark with the five other Mexican immigrants who share a ragged mobile home with no electricity and a front door that won't close because of a broken latch.

"Right now, we're afraid to go to sleep — all of us are restless," the 36-year-old said Saturday outside his home, two doors down from the trailer where robbers killed two of his neighbors. "We don't know if they'll come in and get us in the night, break in while we're asleep."

The slayings of five Mexican immigrants and wounding of six others during a string of mobile home robberies early Friday has terrified Hispanics who come to this rural south Georgia community to work in the fields of cotton and peanut farms.

Investigators suspect at least two men committed the attacks at four mobile home parks — three in Tift County (search) and one in neighboring Colquitt County (search) — and targeted Hispanics not out of hatred, but because they're easy prey.

"They're ready-made victims," said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (search). "They're reluctant to go to the police. They speak very little English. What little cash they have, they keep on their persons or in their homes."

At least two of the men killed were shot. Others were beaten with aluminum baseball bats, a weapon used in all four attacks, Keenan said.

A relative said all but one of the dead belonged to the same family. Keenan said investigators have only determined two were related, a father and son killed in the same residence.

Investigators were following several leads after police released sketches of two attackers based on descriptions from surviving victims, but no arrests had been made. Keenan said crimes against Hispanics are becoming more common in southern Georgia.

"There's been a series of these in surrounding counties for four or five months, but never of this level of violence," Keenan said.

Authorities were still withholding the names of the dead. Police were working with the Mexican consulate in Atlanta to notify victims' families in Mexico, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.

Blanca Perez, 47, knows too well the fear of being a victim. Her Ford Taurus has a bullet hole in the windshield and crude patches where four more bullets punctured the driver's side. She says her son was shot in the arm by thugs in November. In June, muggers held her daughter at gunpoint and demanded money, though they fled after Perez's son snatched their gun.

"But nothing this bad has happened before," Perez said of the killings, one of which occurred across the street from her apartment. "We all slept in one room last night — me, my son, my daughter and a friend."

The community has become a magnet for Hispanics looking for work. According to Census figures, about 3,000 Hispanics live in Tift and 4,500 live in Colquitt — about 10 percent of the population.

But some fear the attacks will drive them away.

Kim Martinez, 34, decided to leave Tifton and move to Florida after robbers broke into her mobile home a month ago and stole her computer. She worries the slayings, if not solved soon, could drive others to seek jobs elsewhere.

"They work hard to send money back to their families in Mexico," said Martinez, who planned to move Saturday. "If these people leave here, what are the farmers going to do? Because nobody wants to do farm work anymore."