Hispanic business owners in Fells Point are accusing city officials and police of a pattern of discrimination, saying their establishments are being targeted unfairly and often shut down over what they believe are minor code violations.
The owner of La Rumba, a bar and restaurant at East Pratt Street and South Broadway, said more than a dozen police officers appeared on each of three nights last month at the peak of business with no warning, shutting the bar down each time and ordering patrons to leave, for infractions such as failing to pay a "minor fine," a broken hot water heater and lack of toilet paper.
"We are concerned about raids by police," said Gilberto de Jesus, an attorney representing the Hispanic Business Association of Maryland. "We're not criminals. We have established businesses."
During a news conference Monday at the now-closed La Rumba, de Jesus was joined by owner Nicolas Ramos and other business owners who called on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to stop what they view as a pattern of harassment and excessive use of force.
City officials deny any discriminatory action.
La Rumba was closed for unsanitary conditions, officials said. It was among several businesses being investigated by the city's Social Club Task Force based on complaints from the community, said Sean Naron, a spokesman for the city Health Department, in an email. The bar also is facing a liquor board hearing this week on pending violations of its liquor license.
"The inspection of La Rumba revealed rodent and roach infestations, operation without a permit (expired), no hot water in the restroom and general unsanitary conditions," said Naron, adding that the closure was ordered after issues could not be corrected immediately. "The violations observed during the operation of the facility would close any food service facility."
The Hispanic Business Association said other Hispanic-owned business have reported "abusive and discriminatory tactics" over the past year. The group said Monday it was seeking talks with the mayor, health code enforcement officials, and the police and fire departments to find ways to identify problems earlier and give owners time to correct violations before being shut down.
"We want an end to police raids where large numbers of armed police officers enter Hispanic establishments to shut them down, usually on busy Friday nights," the group said in a proposal to city officials. "A Sanctuary city like Baltimore must consider the message such raids send to the Latino community. ... The chilling effect of such police conduct cannot be overstated."
City police spokesman T.J. Smith said police typically partner with the health department on inspections and the number of police officers and health officers varies depending on need. He noted that a triple shooting occurred nearby in Fells Point last month, in which an 18-year-old who was under age in a bar was killed.
He said no specific businesses or neighborhoods are being targeted for enforcement. Additional officers were called in to La Rumba to assist with Spanish translations, he said.
"There have been a host of inspections at businesses in various neighborhoods, and no specific neighborhood has been targeted," he said. "These weren't SWAT raids. They were checks with the health department."
Ramos, who has owned La Rumba since 2007, said he immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and has been in the Baltimore area for 27 years. He ran another restaurant, Arcos, which is now closed, on North Broadway. He said business has suffered since the April riots last year and the opening of the city's casino.
He disputed the city's finding of unsanitary conditions.
"It was my dream to come here and own my own business and own a restaurant," Ramos said Monday. "We need to work together. It's not fair, what's happening."
He said 12 officers arrived during peak business hours on Feb. 3 and shut down the bar because of a liquor license fine, which he paid before reopening. On Feb. 5, he estimated that about 20 officers came back, finding a hot water heater not working and shutting him down. The business was shut down again Feb. 12, when he said 15 officers ordered patrons to leave after citing a lack of toilet paper in the ladies room.
He said no illegal activity has taken place in his business.
Naron said Ramos was sent a letter of intent to revoke the food service facility license because of "serious" past violations.
"Since the letter was written, the legally required, posted closure notice has been removed in violation of law," he said. "On re-posting the notice, it was again removed. Thereafter, BCHD received a report that the business was operating in violation of the closure order. Two citations were issued to Mr. Ramos for violation of Health Code. He is also being issued a citation for operating without a license."
Other business owners also said they feel the Hispanic community is being targeted. Luis George, owner of the now-shuttered Punto G restaurant on North Clinton Street, said he was not permitted to renew a liquor license after people in the neighborhood complained about dancing, which is considered live entertainment and not permitted under his license.
"We think we have been singled out," said Enrique Ribadeneira, owner of the Latin Palace, on South Broadway. The city has "made it difficult for a business to prosper."
Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor has a strong record of supporting entrepreneurs, immigrants and minority-owned businesses.
"The mayor has a clear track record of being supportive and making Baltimore a welcoming city," Libit said. "This is an issue involving one business that has repeatedly violated health department regulations and has created conditions that are unsanitary for both patrons and workers. The expectation is that the health department and other agencies are going to enforce these codes" regardless of who owns the business.
Naron said a conference was held Feb. 19 between Ramos and the department's director of environmental inspection services. Ramos was advised to pay the citations and request an administrative hearing to argue to retain his license. An administrative hearing is scheduled in coming weeks.