Since then the typically Mid-western town of Hamilton, Ohio, has descended into threats, confrontations and even an appearance from the Ku-Klux-Klan. In a state where a Republican politician recently sponsored a bill to make English the official language, the recent violence has caused alarm among a burgeoning Latino population.
"There is fear," said Ramona Ramirez, who owns a corner store where she said business was down since the incident. "They are attacking all the Hispanics, and it is only one person [responsible for the crime]. We don't know what will happen."
The city's mayor, Don Ryan, said authorities were trying to ease the tension. Police patrols have been increased and officials have been stressing that rape and other sexual assaults are "strictly random acts of violence" and not racially motivated.
Hamilton has been the focus of a surge of Hispanic growth not normally associated with the US heartlands. The number of Hispanics grew fivefold during the 1990s, to the point where the population is now estimated to be some 4,000 out of a total of 60,000. Reports suggest that such a growth resulted in little friction. During the 1990s the city even had a mayor of Cuban descent.
But the level of racial tension among a population where Latinos are a recent addition to the social mix has now reached a level where most of the streets where the Latino population live are reportedly deserted.
At the Living Water Ministry Church, next to the house that was set alight, the smell of charred wood still hangs in the air. "Before, the street would be covered with people, people out all over the place," the church's outreach worker, Sasha Amen, told the Associated Press. "There's a lot of fear now. People are shutting themselves in their homes."
The catalyst for the unrest was the reported rape of a nine-year-old white girl, allegedly by a Latino man who has since fled the city. The day after news of the rape emerged, the arson attack took place on a house rented by six Mexican immigrants. Local people believed the alleged attacker also lived there.
There have been reports that men dressed in the white hoods of the KKK appeared in the city distributing leaflets. Latinos have been threatened and there have been unconfirmed reports of beatings.
The father of the alleged victim has appealed for calm and asked "vigilantes" to allow the police to do their work.
"They probably mean well, but they're taking everything in their own hands and they should leave it in the police's hands," he said.
A man who lives close to the burnt house, reportedly rented by six Hispanic men, said the community just wanted "justice". "They're just trying to get a suspected predator off the streets," said Eric Price. "Everybody's outraged. I can't even believe it myself."
Police have said they know the identity of the alleged rapist but are refusing to make it public for fear of triggering more vigilante action. "Something like this takes away from the investigation. Now we have another serious crime," a police officer, Mark Hayes, said at the time of the arson attack.
While local residents say this is the first serious problem there has been between Hispanics and the white population, there are other indications of racial tension in the state. Defending his English language bill, the Republican politician Courtney Combs stated: "It used to be that the top priority for immigrants here was to learn the English language so that they could function in the United States. But we've coddled the Spanish-speaking community to the point that there is no motivation for them to learn the predominant language."
He added: "What used to be known as the melting pot of immigrants who did whatever was necessary to fit into the American lifestyle has turned into a tossed salad of immigrants who want America to adapt to them rather than the other way around."
- More about:
- Georgia (usa)
- Latin America
- Republican Party
- South America
- US Politics