LANGLEY PARK - Shivering on a curb outside the Toys R Us, where they've waited for hours in hopes of getting hired onto a construction crew, three Guatemalan carpenters are startled instead to see a police cruiser pull up beside them.
They quickly stand and exchange worried looks. But when Prince George's County police Officer R. Jeff Lanuza climbs out and starts talking in Spanish, it's not to order the men to leave.
Protect yourselves, he tells them. Don't carry around your savings. Put your money in a bank.
His advice, while it may sound like common sense, is the centerpiece of a new campaign by the county Police Department and several local banks to combat an unusually high robbery rate that has beset this area's fast-growing Latino community.
Robbers are targeting Latino immigrants here, police say, because they frequently keep large amounts of cash in their homes - or pockets.
Undocumented immigrants often hesitate to open bank accounts for fear of being turned in to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Others don't understand checking accounts, or they're wary because of the collapse of financial institutions in their home countries.
"I don't have much money," says Manuel Lopez, one of the Guatemalan laborers, echoing one of the most common responses Lanuza gets. Lopez explains that he's working to pay off a debt for immigration papers that he never got. "In Guatemala, there's a lot of corruption," he said. "You get conned into things."
Lanuza, 41, a burly, talkative, second-generation Puerto Rican, has heard all kinds of stories in the two months since he began his curbside counseling on the benefits of banking.
"It takes time to build up trust," he says. "We're dealing with a lot of different fears and concerns.
"What if you're sharing an apartment and you don't really know the people you're living with? You carry your money with you. A lot of people get paid in cash. Friday nights, they're walking home with their pockets full of cash. We've had armed robberies where people have lost $2,000. Well, that's their life savings."
One of Washington's older, Inner Beltway suburbs, Langley Park has changed considerably over the past decade with an influx of immigrants, largely from Central America.
Its apartment buildings now are home to extended families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. University Boulevard is lined with ethnic businesses, including a Peruvian chicken rotisserie, an international food market and check-cashing shops that advertise in Spanish.
Five miles to the north on University Boulevard, across the Montgomery County border, is the Piney Branch area that's the heart of the largest Latino community in Maryland.
Montgomery's Hispanic population has grown by almost 63 percent in the last decade and now numbers 92,408, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Prince George's has 40,526 Hispanics, up 36 percent. Baltimore's Latino population is significantly smaller at 8,514.
Working from a police substation, Montgomery County Officer Karen McNally teaches Latinos basic crime prevention, like calling 911, and helps them sign up for English classes and get other services. Distrust of banking, she agrees, leaves many immigrants at risk of being robbed. But she's reluctant to publicize the problem for fear it will lead to copy-cat crimes.
For his part, Prince George's Capt. Roberto Hylton decided he had nothing to lose by promoting banking. He had become increasingly frustrated with seeing Langley Park account for as much as 60 percent of the robberies in his enormous police district that stretches from Washington to Landover.
"We used all our traditional resources, making arrests, and we were still not reducing the number of robberies," says Hylton, the district commander. "What we're doing here is going out, creating coalitions with civic groups, schools, the faith community ... and we're starting to make some inroads."
Partners with the police are Chevy Chase Bank, Citibank and Bank of America, which are distributing fliers and participating in community forums at the Langley Park substation.
Spanish-speaking bank representatives explain how to open checking and savings accounts. They emphasize that a Social Security number is not required, only a valid identification such as a driver's license, and reassure people that they will not be reported to immigration authorities. Banks are not required to determine the legal status of immigrants, officials note.
Living on cash in a credit-card society, many Latino immigrants spend money for services they could get at a bank, says Monica Vest, manager of Chevy Chase Bank's branch here.
"If you're buying five or six money orders a month, you can get a checking account for less," she says.
Since the campaign began, Chevy Chase has signed up more than 100 new customers, and Bank of America reports an increase in accounts at its Langley Park branch.