Normally, the street corner outside Mercado Central is teeming with people darting in and out of stores, lugging groceries to a bus stop across the street or otherwise going about their business.

But, as Marina Lopez insists, the past few months have been anything but normal.

Lopez, who runs a clothing shop inside the usually bustling market on the corner of E. Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue S., says business hasn’t been so good lately, at least not since the area was hit by a string of robberies targeting mostly Latino men on their way home from work or from the grocery store.

And while police have stepped up patrols in the surrounding Midtown Phillips neighborhood, the muggings have put some residents on edge. “They’re still afraid to come here, it’s so dangerous,” Lopez said of some of her regular customers.

Another vendor said his customers had noticed a recent rise in violent crime. Some of them have turned skittish and have refused to leave their homes after hours.

The suspects in the recent spree have mostly targeted Latinos — at least 17, mostly men, were robbed last month in the Midtown section of the Third Precinct, the city’s largest, which is bounded by Interstate 35W to the west, I-94 to the north, the Mississippi River to the east and 62nd Street to the south. The ethnically diverse area is home to many of the city’s Latin American immigrants.

Most of the victims were walking alone when they were attacked, and more than half were near their homes, according to police.

Police said they first started noticing a rash of armed stickups in the precinct in early October, although there was no discernible pattern. Authorities would not say whether any of the muggings are a result of gang activity or drug trading, as some community leaders have suggested.

“It’s no secret that a lot of Latinos in our area tend to work jobs that pay them cash, and the word is out that they’re easy targets,” said City Council Member Alondra Cano, who represents the ward where many robberies have occurred.

Many more of these crimes may go unreported, because the victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of revealing their illegal immigration status, officials say, which makes them tempting targets.

Attacked in broad daylight

The brazenness of the crimes, some of which are carried out in broad daylight on busy city sidewalks, has alarmed even police.

Earlier in the week, two robberies occurred within one block and five hours of each other in the adjoining East Phillips neighborhood.

The first took place about 11:30 a.m., when a man visiting from out of town was assaulted and stabbed at Cedar Food & Grill by five men, who fled before police arrived, according to an incident report. Later that day, a group of men robbed a 27-year-old man less than a block away, taking his cellphone and $40, police said.

In one of 15 robberies reported citywide last weekend, a husband and wife were mugged as they were getting out of their car near the Midtown Global Market. The victims, who were treated at the scene, provided “very little suspect information,” although police found evidence at the scene that they hope will point to the attackers.

From Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, the last day for which such statistics are available, there were 74 robberies in Midtown Phillips, a 67 percent increase over the average number of muggings from the past seven years. Other neighborhoods saw similar increases, including Downtown West, which recorded 196 robberies through October, a 55 percent jump over its seven-year average of 127, according to police data. Several North Side communities — McKinley, Folwell, and Willard-Hay — also experienced sharp increases.

Still, robberies actually fell slightly citywide from this time last year, and even in the Third Precinct, the numbers dropped to 513 from 549 this time last year, records show.

Few arrests have been made in the recent thefts, and a Police Department spokesman this week declined to comment on the spike.

Patrols to beef up

When Cano, the council member, met this week with police officials and business leaders, the discussion revolved around persistent street crime and the renewed popularity of heroin. Police promised to put two more officers on patrol in the area around Mercado Central by the start of next year, she said.

Much of the rise in robberies is simply a product of having fewer cops on the streets, said Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the police union. He said the “dismantling” of the precinct’s community response team (CRT) — whose controversial tactics drew scrutiny after members were accused of having sexual contact with female suspects in a prostitution sting — took away what had been an effective crime-fighting tool.

“The CRT teams have basically been gutted and not been able to go out and do proactive work,” Kroll said. “The bad guys are aware that the cops have been told to back off.”


Staff writer MaryJo Webster contributed to this article.