Small Restaurants around San Diego Falling Target to Robberies

The neighborhood taco shop is becoming a popular target for armed robbers and a mounting concern for police.

Over past months, some of the same small eateries have been hit repeatedly. In the Otay Mesa area, robbers recently tried to strike two restaurants on the same block.

In other holdups, men have forced customers and employees at gunpoint into back rooms or made them lie on the floor while cash drawers, wallets and purses were emptied.

From May to August, San Diego police recorded 12 robberies or robbery attempts at taco shops. They say many of the Mexican restaurants lack security cameras, are open all hours, accept cash only and often hire employees with questionable immigration status who fear cooperating with authorities.

"The taco shops are easy targets for all those reasons," said Lt. Lawrence McKinney, who heads the San Diego police robbery unit.

Recent robberies include:

* Super Bronco Mexican Restaurant on Linda Vista Road in Linda Vista, where the same masked men are believed to have committed robberies twice in May. On May 27, one robber pointed a .38-caliber pistol at a female worker. She handed the pair a few hundred dollar bills.

* Sabrosito taco shop on University Avenue in University Heights was robbed in June by a man with a plastic bag over his head who pointed a semi-automatic weapon at a worker and took money from a cash drawer, stuffing it into his pocket.

* Rolbertos Taco Shop on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights was robbed last month by two men. One yelled at a worker, "Give me all your money, I have gun," as frightened customers fled.

Police say they face numerous challenges in preventing or investigating the robberies.

Taco shops, more than other fast-food restaurants, tend to cover front windows with signs that display menus or promote specials, preventing police on patrol from seeing what's going on inside.

The language barrier is also a problem. Many employees speak Spanish and the police department has a shortage of Spanish speakers.

Taco shop employees usually don't call 911 right away, causing a delay in getting suspect information to patrol officers, who have the best chance of making an early arrest.

"We often are the second call they make after a robbery," said Sgt. Joe Molinoski, a former robbery detective and now a watch commander.

The first call, he said, goes to the boss.

In the robbery at Rolbertos last month, employees delayed calling police because they were afraid and unable to locate the phone.

Police note that because many of these restaurants are just trying to make ends meet, they lack security cameras -- a temptation for robbers and a hindrance for detectives. "Unfortunately, for some businesses, the bottom line is bringing in money," McKinney said. "We often find some of them have cameras that are not in working order, or have no film, or just turned off."

Auday Arabo, president and chief executive officer for the Independent Grocers and Convenience Stores, said small businesses, such as taco shops, have found security cameras an expensive proposition.

"The systems aren't exactly cheap," Arabo said. Even maintaining the equipment can be costly. "But we strongly recommend it," he said.

San Diego police are getting technology upgrades that will give them the ability to pull details from surveillance video that normal playback systems would not provide: freeze frames, enhance imaging of faces and license plates, suspect measurement and motion tracking.

The best chance of solving robberies is the images the cameras provide, Arabo said.

Police emphasize that many businesses -- not just taco shops -- could use better surveillance, training and prevention practices.

The worker at a San Ysidro taco stand said that as a precaution, large amounts of cash were no longer kept in the register.

Employees and managers deny that their taco shops -- any more so than other businesses -- are sitting ducks for robbers.

"We tell our (employees) how to get good descriptions on the robbers, never to resist and to cooperate with police," said the manager of one University Avenue shop, who requested anonymity for fear of being a target.