CANTON, Ga. - On a frigid afternoon last February, Domingo Lopez Vargas decided to call it a day. A diminutive 54-year-old with bowl-cut hair and a gold tooth, Lopez had left his dirt-poor Guatemalan farm village 15 years before, determined to earn some decent money for his wife and nine children.
He'd joined a mid-1990s wave of immigrants heading for the piney hills and exploding exurbs of North Georgia. Lopez settled in Canton, a former mill village 35 miles north of Atlanta.
With the construction boom spreading ever northward from Atlanta, the area was fast becoming one of the most popular - and lucrative - U.S. destinations for immigrant workers.
Unlike many of his compadres, Lopez had legal status, which helped him find steady work hanging doors and windows. But last February, the work dried up and Lopez joined the more than 100,000 jornaleros - day laborers - who wait for landscaping and construction jobs on street corners and in front of 7-Elevens and other stores all across North Georgia.
Usually there are plenty of pickup trucks that swing by, offering $8 to $12 an hour for digging, planting, painting or hammering. But this day, nada. By late afternoon, Lopez had had enough of standing on Main Street waiting with others in the cold. He gave up and walked up the street to McFarland's, a grocery store in a beat-up shopping center.
"I got milk, shampoo and toothpaste," he recalls through an interpreter. "When I was leaving the store, this truck stopped right in front of me and said, 'Do you want to work?'" Lopez hasn't picked up much English in 15 years, but he knew what that meant. "I said, 'Yes, how much?' They said $9 an hour. I didn't ask what kind of job. I just wanted to work, so I said yes."
Until that afternoon, Lopez says, "Americans had always been very nice to me." Which might explain why he wasn't concerned that the guys in the green pickup - all four of them - looked awfully young to be contractors. Or why he didn't think twice about being picked up so close to sunset. "I took the offer because I know sometimes people don't stop working until 9 at night," he says.
The four young men, all students at Cherokee High School, drove Lopez to a remote spot strewn with trash. "They told me to pick up some plastic bags that were on the ground. I thought that was my job, to clean up the trash. But when I bent over to pick it up, I felt somebody hit me from behind with a piece of wood, on my back."
It was just the start of a 30-minute pummeling that left Lopez bruised and blooded from his thighs to his neck.
"I thought I was dying," he says. "I tried to stand up but I couldn't. I couldn't understand what they were saying." Finally, after he handed over all the cash in his wallet, $260, along with his Virgin Mary pendant, the teenagers sped away.
Lopez, it turned out, was the latest victim in a series of robberies and assaults on Hispanic day laborers in Canton. The first report had come on Nov. 15, 2003, when 22-year-old Elias Tu was robbed and beaten near the old mills in downtown Canton.At the time, the most recent had been just one day before Lopez landed in the hospital, when 22-year-old Carlos Perez had been offered work by three teenagers - including two of those accused of assaulting Lopez.
Perez had been driven to an abandoned house, punched with fists and clobbered with a metal pipe. He threw his wallet at the teenagers during the beating; they extracted his $300 in cash and tossed it back at him.
It was just a matter of days before seven Cherokee High School students were under arrest. "At least one of them was going around school bragging about robbing and beating up Mexicans," says Canton's Assistant Police Chief Jeff Lance.
"They were looking for easy prey."
Police can't say how much "easy prey" the Cherokee students might have found between November and February. According to Lance, "a number" of day laborers reported similar robberies and assaults - highly unusual, he notes, because immigrants normally "don't want to deal with us."
Tiu was the only previous victim detectives were able to locate. "They tend to move from one house to another," Lance says, "so it's hard to find the victims."